Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Dear Mr. President

As we witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, it's hard not to write about this historic day. Our new president will face countless challenges on issues as vital and diverse as the economic meltdown, global security, climate change and healthcare.

Sure, all of those things are important, but what about the whiskey? America's whiskey lovers are clamoring for liquor law reform, and I am ready with a Whiskey Wednesday presidential wish list. Some of these things would require regulatory changes, some would necessitate actual changes in the law. Some involve more regulation and some less, but everything on the list is aimed at helping us, the whiskey-loving public.

1. Allow Imports in Alternative Bottle Sizes

Did you know that US regulation sets the acceptable size of alcohol bottles? In fact, this is one of the reasons we don't get lots of the best whiskey from overseas. The standard bottling size for US spirits is 750 ml whereas in most other places it is 700 ml. That means that if a Scottish or Japanese distillery wants to export its whiskey to the US, they have to buy completely different bottles from their standard run. As a result, we miss out on many smaller, more limited or specialty bottlings where, from the distiller's point of view, it's just not worth the expense to do two separate bottlings. (Kevin Erskine has a good write-up on the history of this anomalous regulation here).

The difference between these bottle sizes is only 50 ml, the size of a typical mini or airplane bottle, so who cares? Change this regulation and allow us to import all of the best Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskey!

2. Allow Distillery Direct and Website Sales

If you live in the UK, you can buy whiskey from a whiskey store, from a distillery or on ebay. In the US, you can only purchase spirits from a licensed retailer who purchases from a licensed distributor who either purchases it from a domestic distiller or imports it. This complex three-tier system is a relic of prohibition and has no place in the world of point-and-click purchasing.

I want to purchase whiskey (1) directly from the distillery; (2) from on-line UK retailers such as Whisky Exchange or Royal Mile Whiskies; and (3) on ebay (though I better be careful about fakes). Yes, allowing all of this will require a number of complex legal and regulatory changes in everything from commercial to tax law as well as legal changes at the state level, but it will be worth it.

3. Label Disclosure - Distilleries

Call me crazy, but when I drink something, I like to know what it is. That means I want to know who made it. In the world of American whiskey, this is a big problem. Companies buy up whiskey from distillers and sell it under their own labels, often times implying that they made it themselves. I propose that any American straight whiskey should list the distillery or distilleries in which the whiskey was produced on the label.

4. Label Disclosure - Ingredients

A bottle of American straight whiskey contains pretty much just that- whiskey. Not so for imports. Scotch often includes food coloring. Canadian whiskey, as you may recall from our recent write up, can contain various additives. I want to know anything that goes into that bottle that isn't whiskey or water...that means brandy, caramel coloring, sugar or anything else. I want to know if the deep brown color of my Scotch comes from years in oak or from a bottle of spirit caramel. We require ingredient lists on food, why not on whiskey?

5. In-Flight Whiskey

As a frequent business traveler, I am all too familiar with the indignities of the strip and cavity search that is post-9/11 airline security. I understand the metal detectors and certainly want to be safe when I fly, but has any terrorist act been prevented by the prohibition on liquids? Frankly, I think airline security is more about appearances than actual prevention, as most domestic terrorism is foiled by intelligence, not making people take off their loafers. In any case, I think it's high time we lifted the ban on in-flight liquids. I'm tired of spending the flight worried about my newest purchase wrapped in laundry and towels in the cargo-hold...I haven't had a breakage yet, but I've been lucky.

So, Mr. President, please add these important measures to your agenda for change. And if anyone has any others, please chime in.


Dr. Whisky said...

Brilliant wish list, Sku. Although all of the wishes are spot-on, the third is absolutely pointed and would, in my mind, be a real positive in the growing popularity of American whiskies, fine bourbons, and straight ryes. It would also help a newbie to American whiskey (like me) understand more about his/her discoveries in whiskey exploration.

sku said...

Thanks for you note Doc. This is one of my pet peeves, both with regard to bottlers who fudge the line as to bottling vs. distilling and general brand proliferation among distillers. If a Bourbon newbie checks out the shelves at a liquor store, they would reasonably assume there were dozens of Kentucky Bourbon distilleries, when in reality, there are only nine.