Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bourbon Law: Bourbon + Rye = What?

News came out recently that Wild Turkey is planning to release a blend of bourbon and rye.  In the ensuing discussion on one of the forums, this question came up:  If you add rye to bourbon, but the final mashbill is still at least 51% corn, can you call it bourbon?

The answer is no.  Under the federal regulations, the definition of bourbon includes the mashbill of at least 51% corn, the new, charred oak barrels, etc.  It also states that the definition includes "mixtures of such whiskies of the same type."  27 CFR § 5.22(b)(1)(i).  Rye is not the "same type" of whiskey as bourbon, so once you add rye whiskey, it's no longer bourbon.

So what is it?

Well, if both whiskeys are straight, it's a "blend of straight whiskeys."  27 CFR § 5.22(b)(5)(i).  If both whiskeys are not straight, there is no real category that covers it, other than the generic "whiskey."

Of course, the company could also describe the whiskey composition in the title, such as "Joe's Whiskey, a blend of bourbon and rye."  This is what High West did with Campfire, another undefined category of whiskey.  The heading on the label simply says "High West Whiskey" but there is a subheading that explains that the whiskey contains straight rye, straight bourbon and Scotch.  This makes sense, since it informs the consumer of what is actually in the bottle, and that, after all, is the intent of all of these labeling regulations.


Steffen said...

High West also made a Bourye :-)

Nice word in my opinion

(and a very nice whiskey)


EllenJ said...

Unfortunately, the CFR seems to be rapidly becoming a fiction book.

Middle West Distillers market a really nice-tasting product that they call OYO Michelone Reserve Bourbon Whiskey -- and then go on to describe it further as "wheated bourbon whiskey", the implication being that it is at least 51% corn, with the main small grain being the red winter wheat they use in their wheat whiskey.

Turns out it's more than the wheat they use... it IS their wheat whiskey, blended with sourced straight Kentucky bourbon. Since the total corn content is over 51%, they feel that makes it legitimately bourbon whiskey. I feel they're wrong about that. I'll be you feel that way, too. In speaking with Erik Boettcher and Josh Daily of Middle West, I get the impression that they would have been fine with labeling it something else, but the TTB considers it to be bourbon whiskey, so that's what they went with.

These gentlemen don't appear to be the sort who are looking to sell a product by way of deception. It's a very good product on its own, and that isn't the issue. If the very organization that new distillers turn to for advice on how to label their product (among other key production requirements) is advising them contrary to the laws the organization is there to uphold, then of what value is the venerable CFR to anyone?

sku said...

EllenJ, that's pretty sad. My experience is similar. I see so many out of compliance labels these days that it makes me wonder if anyone at the TTB has actually read the regs.

EllenJ said...

Once upon a time I was a Novell network administrator for a very large, global company located here in Cincinnati. A Novel network is a little like a Local Area Network (LAN) except much larger and far more secure. That security is maintained by the fact that the system is run 24/7 by professional administrators, rather than by the end users themselves as Windows networks are organized (if that's the word for it), or automated as internet websites are.

Unfortunately, the very safeguards that administrators are charged with enforcing also thwart the sort of instant, hands-off, outta-my-way-I-just-gotta-get-this-done-NOW personalities that mark the most creative and inventive people. And those are the very people who MY bosses depended on for our continued employment. Balancing "what's actually good for the customer" with "what some committee once SAID we're supposed to do or not do" was the core of many daily traumas (tramae?), all of which I'm happy to be no longer a part of.

But I can easily see the same thing happening to some poor TTB field agent.

Look, there are some folks who believe no whiskey should ever rate being called "bourbon" if it isn't distilled, aged, and sold by one of the eight old-line Kentucky companies that have been there since Repeal. I don't feel that way, personally; historically there is no reason to believe that all bourbon met the CFR regulations (which didn't exist before 1933), or the bottled-in-bond regulations (most didn't, in fact), or any other criteria that post-Prohibition marketers have insisted the brands that they bought the rights to have always met since the first drop of bourbon was distilled (by their founder, of course).

I'm not sure just why new distillers or bottlers of whiskey feel such a need to call their product "bourbon" -- could it be because they feel we won't bother to even try it if it isn't named that? I really think that seems to be the case, and if so, then we -- as consumers of Americian brown distilled spirits -- need to encourage new spirit types by making our desire to sample new stuff instead of just Buffalo Trace's annual product update clear. Instead of badgering your Congressperson to trash the current administration, or to ensure that nothing gets done at all, perhaps we should ask for a re-writing of the CF Regs regarding distilled spirit naming conventions and definitions. Then maybe we should petition liquor merchants to start promoting spirits other than "bourbon", "rye", "corn whiskey", "rum", agave and maguey spirits, vodka, and so forth. We could call ourselves The Long Island Iced Tea Party. Or something.

And you know what would happen if we were successful?
The "my whiskey is not only better than yours, yours shouldn't even be CALLED whiskey" folks will be bellyaching all over the place that the "stupid, corrupt media" has sold them out! Is anyone here really up for that?

Mat Garretson said...

Seems success breeds imitation.

Wild Turkey isn't the only one getting in on this act. Jefferson's is releasing a boubon/rye blend, too.