What Is Whiskey? The Taft Decision

Oftentimes a guest will as “What makes a spirit a bourbon? Who sets the rules for what can be considered bourbon and what cant?” Believe it or not, the creation and composition of whiskey was high on the list of Presidential priorities. It all started with the Pure Food Act of 1906 – the act that would lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration that we know and love today.

Travel back in time with me to the year 1900.

It was a time of rampant consumption…and rampant corruption. It was the heyday of the snake-oil salesman and the magic elixir peddler. It was the era of the lithium cough drop and the cocaine laced Coca-cola. In fact in 1909 because of its excessive cocaine; caffeine replaced cocaine as the active ingredient in Coca-Cola in 1903. Anything and everything could be passed off as “safe” treatments for common illnesses to the detriment of the consumer. Although statistics from the period are lacking, many Americans died each year from eating and drinking poisonous substances, or from habit forming drugs.

With a need to address the patent dangers to consumers, The Pure Food and Drug Act was introduced.

The Pure Food and Drug Act required that certain drugs, including alcohol, be accurately labeled with contents and proof. The concern here was that many drugs commercially available had been mislabeled to sell more product to otherwise gullible buyers. Cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and other such drugs continued to be legally available without prescription as long as they were labeled.

With the introduction of this act, the IRS issued Order No. 723 in April of 1907. In this order, directions were given as to how certain distilled spirits should be branded. The effect of this order was to reserve the right to use the term “straight whisky” to “legitimate” brands, while forcing other brands to use the term “imitation” on their labels. However, the Pure Food Act didn’t mention a specific recipe for “straight whiskey”, leaving a gap in interpretation.

A hearing was called to answer the following questions:
•What was whiskey, and what did that term mean for manufacturers, tradesmen, and the general public?
•What did the term “whiskey” include?
•What are the maximum and minimum substances that could be included in a distilled substance for it to be called whiskey?
•Is the term “whiskey” as a drug applicable to a different product than whiskey as a beverage? If so, under what circumstances?

1200 pages of judgments went into answering these questions during the hearing.

For centuries, the term “whiskey” (a derivative of the Irish word Usquebaugh) had been used to describe any grain-distilled spirit. These procedures gave lawmakers a differentiation between straight whiskey, distilled spirits, rectified spirits, and neutral spirits whiskey, and even went so far as to describe Canadian Club whiskey from other types of blended whiskey.

President Taft (laying the smackdown)
President Taft (laying the smackdown)

So it was on December 27 in 1909, President Taft signed off on the legal definition of an American whiskey, which led us to our modern whiskey classifications. These classifications include:
•Bourbon whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize).
•Corn whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn.
•Malt whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley
•Rye whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye.
•Rye malt whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye.
•Wheat whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat.

These types of American whiskey must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume, and must then be aged in new charred-oak containers, except for corn whiskey. Corn whiskey does not have to be aged but, if it is aged, it must be in un-charred oak barrels or in used barrels. The aging of corn whiskey is usually less than six weeks, but if the whiskey reaches two years or beyond, the whiskey is then additionally designated as “straight” e.g., “straight rye whiskey”.

A whiskey that fulfills all these above requirements except that it is derived from less than 51% of any one specific type of grain can be called simply a “straight whiskey” regardless of the grain.

There are also some other categories of whiskey that are recognized in the US regulations, such as:
•Blended whiskey, which is a mixture which contains straight whiskey or a blend of straight whiskies and, separately or in combination, whiskey or neutral spirits, and may also contain coloring and flavoring.
•Light whiskey, which is produced in the United States at more than 80% alcohol by volume and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers.
•Spirit whisky, which is a mixture of neutral spirits and at least 5% of certain stricter categories of whisky.

American blended whiskeys combine straight whiskey with neutral grain spirit (NGS), flavoring, and coloring. The percentage of NGS must be disclosed on the label and may be as much at 80% on a proof gallon basis. Blended whiskey has the same alcohol content as straight whiskey but typically has a milder flavor. (Source)

You now know the story of the birth of the term whiskey as we know it today!

Cheers!

+Demitrius

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