What’s In a Name? American Whisky

Welcome to part two of this very occasional series, What’s In a Name, wherein we are exploring the precise meanings of the words on our booze labels. Today we’re going to look at American whisky.

The governing body in the US for alcohol and spirits labeling is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). You can read for yourself what they have to say about whisky at atf.gov, something I would highly recommend if you’re suffering from insomnia.

Or I’ve distilled the information from their government-speak for you here.

There are five main whiskies identified by the ATF – bourbon, rye, wheat malt, rye malt, and corn. Each whisky must be made from at least 51% of its respective grain (corn in the case of bourbon) and the final product cannot exceed 160° proof. They must be stored in new, charred oak barrels, except for corn whisky which may be stored in used or new un-charred barrels and may not be treated with charred wood. The whiskies should be stored at 125° proof.

That’s pretty much it for whiskies. But there are some other words we need to look at, specifically “straight” and “blended.” For the most part these words mean exactly what they seem to mean. Straight means that the whisky fits the descriptions above with the added distinction that it has spent at least 2 years in those barrels.

It is with the word blended that this all starts to get interesting. The word might seem to imply that some trained whisky taster sat down and carefully blended different batches until she came up with the perfect flavor; and legally it can mean that. But it can also mean so much more. The word blended allows the whisky producers to blend into the whisky what the ATF calls “harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials.” These can include oleoresins, commercially prepared infusions, wine, sugar, fruit concentrates, and FD&C Green #3.

So how can you be sure that you’re getting the real thing and not a wine infused oleoresin blend? Stay away from the word blend. Straight, when used alone, means that the whisky is pure but when blend is added, as in “a blend of straight whiskies” those harmless materials are allowed. The only American-made whisky that is excepted from these hair-splitting distinctions is bourbon. If bourbon is on the label you can be sure that no blending has gone on.

I think I’ll have a bourbon … and make it a double.

3 Comments on "What’s In a Name? American Whisky"

  1. drinkslover August 15, 2007 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Now I’m confused – thought it was Scotch that was ‘Whisky’ and irish & American that was ‘WhiskEy’?

  2. bgbryce August 15, 2007 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Good thing the two words are pronounced the same, right? Makes things easier at the bar!

    I think you’re questioning whether the American stuff is whisky or whiskey, right? I addressed that in the first “What’s in a Name” – http://www.boozingear.com/blog/2007/05/15/whats-in-a-name-whisky-or-whiskey/. The distinction is between casual and legal use. The US code refers to the stuff as whisky although casual use tends toward whiskey in the US. It’s hard to keep straight, though, even in the rigid writing of government law. In reading the legal descriptions of whisky at atf.gov I found at least one usage of whiskey even though the government clearly prefers whisky.

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