Monday, April 16, 2012

You Say Potato, I Say...Whiskey?

A few weeks ago, I saw an inquiry about a potato whiskey being made by a Colorado microdistillery. I assumed that the person asking the question was just using the term "whiskey" as shorthand because there could not legally be a potato whiskey.

Under the federal regulations governing spirits, whiskey must be made from "grain." Now, it's not totally clear what "grain" means under the law (more on that tomorrow), but I sure as hell know what it doesn't mean: potatoes.

But lo an behold, I Googled around and found a Colorado liquor store selling potato whiskey, and I found a Certificate of Label Approval from the TTB (Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) for 303 Whiskey which says right on the label "Distilled from Potatoes."

How did this happen? You may recall a few years ago, the Scotch Whisky Association had a fit when India tried to export a sugar-based "whiskey" to the EU. It was a major controversy and the SWA eventually won, but here in the States, we just let potato whiskey go?

Now obviously, this is not the world's biggest issue. No one is being deceived, since the label says very clearly that the product is whiskey distilled from potatoes, but if we are going to go to the trouble of having legal definitions, shouldn't we apply them consistently? Otherwise, what's the point? There is enough confusion out there about terms like "whiskey" and "bourbon" without further confusing them by stretching those definitions.

Now, unlike Scotland, where certain spirits are simply not permitted to be produced, in the US you can make almost anything, but you have to label it correctly. Whatever this stuff is (aged vodka? potato spirit? spud-shine?), it ain't whiskey.

Tomorrow: What is a "grain" anyway?


Anonymous said...

A spirit distilled from potatoes is vodka. As this distillery also makes a 303 Vodka they should be ashamed for blurring the product lines in this manner. There are plenty of ways to brand such a product, just look at tequila, without calling it something it is not -- whiskey.

AaronWF said...

See, if they marketed it as Spudshine, I might be intrigued.

sam k said...

I've heard that there are numerous craft whiskeys out there that received label approval without ever touching wood. Could this be another idea that simply slipped by the feds' dragnet?

I have labels from the Dillinger distillery (Ruffsdale, PA), from the 1940s for a product that is 20% actual whiskey (aged six months in re-used cooperage) that has been diluted with "potato neutral spirits" to become spirit whiskey, but at least the 20% appears to be a grain-based whiskey. Still, it's not anything I'd look forward to sipping neat...

Anonymous said...

Coming soon, the next product line extension from Boulder Distillery, the 303 Experimental Collection. A barrel aged, Armagnac finished whisky from a mashbill of 50% yams, 40% sweet potatoes, and 10% Caribbean fufu. Limited edition of just 303 bottles, world-wide.

NP said...

Label approval is by no means linked to an actual product; as a matter of fact I can register today the magical libation that is 303 Experimental Collection. And it does not matter the label is sent to the TTb way before fufu's harvest time and the product can even start being processed. sorry, by processed I meant hand-crafted really.

Seriously now, this is just the result of having people look at spreadsheets and check boxes with no more knowledge than that.
They look at the front label and need to check the following: brand name, proof, volume, type of product/category (whiskey, brandy), origin.

As long as our Armagnac finished fufu whisky's front label explicitly fits this list, it should be good to go.

sku said...

Thanks for the clarification NP, but shouldn't it be clear from the spreadsheets that "Whiskey Distilled from Potatoes" is not one of the types permitted? There are almost 100 categories of whiskey that they acknowledge for labeling purposes, and that's not one of them...or is it enough to get by the COLA process that it has the word "whiskey" on the label?

NP said...

My guess is that associating "whiskey" with "made from grain" - and nothing else - requires from whoever is in charge of the examination process to have a clear understanding of a) the products and b) the law applied to said products.

Who knows they might be understaffed, overworked or just not enough trainer. Mistakes are always possible.

Usually they are very very picky on details (size of the fonts or whether there is enough space between this line and that line).

The way I see it, like in any business when one does the same task over and over again, day after day, one ends up naturally switches one's brain off a bit and just do thing mechanically without trying to understand which leads to human mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed the SWA has always been more strict than the body that regulates American whisky. The SWA threw a fit when Compass Box made The Spice Tree by putting toasted staves of French oak inside the barrel and Compass Box had to change the process. When Maker's Mark did the same thing, no one complained and Maker's 46 went to market.

sku said...

Anon, I'd say the two countries are strict on different things. For instance, the SWA has no problem with caramel, but you can't add that to straight American whiskey. The difference is that the SWA can ban things outright, whereas the TTB will just make you call it something else.