The easy answer for—What is “Straight Whiskey” is the legal requirement/definition that it was aged at least two years. It’s much more than that. I’ll jump back and forth on spelling Whisk(e)y as the TTB is using no extra “e” where most of us do.
I was recently in a multi-day extended twitter “discussion” with a new craft distiller and a blogger about the “Straight” designation in Whiskey. Their basic point being that it didn’t really matter nor added anything to the Whisky. My take was it did. My thought is if your Whisky can qualify for the “Straight” designation, why not? It’s a few hundred dollars, an application and you print new labels that will make the brand standout and sell better. I can only come up with a few reasons why not to make Straight Whisky when you can—They just aren’t bright or the economics and heavier lifting involved scares them from the Straight designation. It’s more restrictive, costs money and much easier to duck, hide and make excuses then make the best product which a consumer can confirm a quality starting point for. It’s especially important if it’s a new brand you don’t know, never heard of or afraid it’s just another rotgut “moonshine-esque” joke dog Whisky. Maybe it’s just a little insurance it might not suck.
My interest is in Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee Whiskey which are all Whiskies. 99% of these fore-mentioned produced are designated as “Straight”. Very very few non-Straight Whisky I’ve had are good and I can’t recall ever buying a second bottle of any although I’m sure there are a few. This is not to say there aren’t very good craft options which will grow, they are just very rare. This is also not to say that you shouldn’t support and help the little guy, you should as long as the little guy is upfront and isn’t sneaking his hand in your pocket. It’s expensive to buy Craft. Often your paying for the novelty of what it is rather than how it tastes. Very young whiskey tastes young and only the most skilled and experienced Master Distillers can put something good out until one gets a few years under their belt. With most Craft your not likely to be buying the best quality or value. In fact, I hate to call many distilleries “Craft”. Making junk and throwing flavor in it or a cleaver label of a Hillbilly on a bottle of White Dog doesn’t make you Craft, it makes you crap. It’s like owning a “Gourmet” Hot Dog shop when your neighbor is a small great Gourmet Steakhouse that has their own Cattle farm. Willett and Limestone Branch are both on the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail and they are nothing alike.
Without getting into a big history lesson pre-regulated booze was often nasty. People went blind, got sick and died but mostly just got horribly ripped off. Legal designations such as Bourbon, Straight, Bottled in Bond were created to protect the consumer from unscrupulous suppliers and rectifiers putting nasty things in booze and/or lying about contents, recipe and proof. These designations became a form of guarantee and promise of quality. The US Treasury TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) is tasked to make sure the rules are followed and bottles labeled properly for all legal spirits. Putting aside the fact that that does not always happen, let’s look at one term- “Straight”.
The Distiller I reference is from a distillery in Colorado that’s been around for about two years. His prior experience was as a Home Brewer. It’s a mom and pop-ish operation. I’m sure he has great pride in what he does and his life is wrapped up in it’s success. Good for him and I hope he does well and makes it. I think he has a lot to learn. In our discussion on twitter he stated that-
“we never plan on using “straight” because it means little/nothing to 90% of the market.”
Then he added in the thread when I disagreed—
“agree consumers are getting smarter, but I feel STRAIGHT is another cumbersome marketing term that will fade. Time will tell!”
Then this one when pointing out that people do know the difference such as Aficionados, Whiskey-tenders and Retail staff—-
” I presume they know the meaning but don’t fret over it. After all, it only signifies 2+ yrs if maturation. Just my opinion…”
I told him it’s disrespectful and I didn’t think he understood the history or necessity of the term.
I won’t get into a whole bunch of conflicts I turned up as I’m not trying to embarrass the guy, he needs to make a living. He’s admirably making his own stuff and just doesn’t know any better yet. He doesn’t realize that in the pile of new craft stuff showing up, customers are looking for solid signs that “it’s not terrible like the last time” they got screwed. Stories about Grandpa, water, grain or lovingly made my Rocket Scientists and Red Cross Volunteers is getting old and cliche. Reading the strokingly descriptive copy promoting these brands I’m wondering if a Happy Ending is involved. They’ve been laughable. It’s been my experience that without confirmed time in good wood the rest doesn’t matter that much. So many brands give you the impression the Whisky is as old as the last Ice Age when in actuality the last issue of Whisky Advocate is older. Show me a sign, throw me a bone and prove age on the label or I’m figuring its nasty, young and tastes like wet newspaper like the last one I got screwed on!
This Colorado Distillers assumption with the Straight designation being nothing more than a Marketing fad that means nothing to 90% of the consumers is wrong. It’s what a guy brewing beer in his garage a couple years ago figures, not someone serious about this for 20 years. I pointed out to him that educated/knowledgable and passionate customers ARE his clients. The ones that don’t care or not passionate aren’t sending $50+ for a bottle of his young Whisky, they are buying cheap crap and hardly ever experimenting. He also did not assume Bar, Resturant and Retail staff would have enough knowledge or care enough to guide those 90%.
As for the Blogger his point was that there were lots of whisky’s over two years old that don’t say straight. Lost in the discussion was it doesn’t NEED to be and the statement “Using Whisky as old as 8 years” doesn’t really mean a thing like “Small Batch”. Even if this “Age Baiting” is true, it’s often mixed with much younger Whisky.
I list this summary on what Straight really means first. If you choose to read further for more detail it’s there at the bottom.
The difference of Straight Whisk(e)y or Straight Bourbon vs Non Straight Whisky-
—Non-Straight Whisky can be distilled and matured at a much higher poorer quality proof than Bourbon, lower than 190 vs Bourbon at 160. 190 is Neutral grain and Vodka territory.
—Bourbon can’t get stored higher than 125 proof in the barrel, Whisky can be as high as 190 proof. Again, real bad for the quality but it lets you get maximum production aka bottles.
—Non-Straight can be put in any Oak barrel used multiple times of which flavor/quality keeps getting worse each time. Shorter time x barrel usage fills = younger tasting aka poorer quality product. FYI -Corn Whisky doesn’t require any barrel or Oak. The advantages of new charred Oak are not required, Bourbon must be in new charred Oak as does Straight Whisky. Barrels are the most expensive part of Whisky so reuse is often an Economic, not quality decision. I’m not addressing Single Malt or Scotch here. That’s a completely different matter and explanation. American Whisky is my focus.
—Bourbon and Straight Whiskey can’t have Flavoring or Color added, Whisky can cheat this way as it’s permitted.
—Straight Whisky and Straight Bourbon needs to be aged at least 2 years although those without age statements (the norm) needs to be 4 or more years old. Whisky can age 1 second in Oak, be removed from the barrel which can then be refilled and cycle repeated if they choose to do so. The Colorado Distillery is transparent about age in one of their Whiskies-“briefly touched by oak and then into the bottle”. I see it as a nothing more than a “definition” designation play to call it a Whisky.
—Bourbon needs to have greater than 51% Corn with Rye, Wheat or Barley. Whisky can be any fermented grain. Plain Straight Whisky can’t be more than 51% of one grain but can’t use Neutral grain.
—Straight Whisky needs to be from the same type made in the same State, Non-Straight can be a mix from anywhere.
Below I am editing out unnecessary portions of the legal requirements for my purpose. I’m also drawing from a few US Government sources that I may not be listing. There are so many and it’s very confusing.
CFR 27 5.22 The standards of identity.
(b) Class 2; Whisky. ‘‘Whisky’’ is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.
(iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as ‘‘straight’’; for example, ‘‘straight bourbon whisky’’, ‘‘straight corn whisky’’, and whisky conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as ‘‘straight whisky’’. No other whiskies may be designated ‘‘straight’’. ‘‘Straight whisky’’ includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.
Straight must be 2 years old but if not at least 4 it must state the age.
Whisky must be put in Oak containers but not required to be charred nor new. Science and experience proves that a new charred Oak container adds lots of great taste and flavor to a whiskey designated to be Bourbon. I won’t get heavily into the chemistry such as Sweet flavors like Maple and Vanilla the new charred Oak brings out but your not getting as much if any in a young Whisky using a used non charred barrel. Straight DOES need to be in new charred Oak $$$.
Non Straight can have Color and Flavoring
From SKU’s Most Recent Eats most fabulous website says it better than I could (he’s like waaaay smarter than I)—
“Some Whiskey May Contain Coloring. This is really the same issue as with aging. Straight whiskey may not contain any coloring or flavoring, but no such restriction is imposed on whiskey that does not carry the “straight” designation, 27 CFR § 5.23(a)(3), and added caramel coloring does not need to be disclosed on the label of non-straight whiskey. 27 CFR § 5.39(b)(3). However, the TTB’s Beverage Alcohol Manual states that bourbon of any kind (not just straight) cannot contain coloring or flavoring. The Manual is not an official regulation, but it is a guideline as to how the TTB interprets the regulation, so for now, the TTB is apparently interpreting it in a way that prohibits coloring and flavoring in any bourbon, though they do allow coloring in non-straight rye, wheat and corn whiskeys.”
From the US Standards—-“Treating with harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials* a specific type of whisky not customarily so treated, e.g., bourbon whisky treated with caramel should be designated “Whisky” “
So if it’s not Straight it can have “harmless color and flavoring”.
It can “include mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.” I have to admit I can’t precisely say what this is but it can’t be good. I’m thinking Neutral Grain Spirit. Here is non straight “Whisky’s” requirement —“distillate from a fermented mash of grain”. Here is the straight requirement -“produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain”. Presumably corn is used such as in Bourbon.
Ok, I think I broke it down that it’s not “Just” age. Straight is harder, more expensive, it takes longer, more restrictive. If you can get away with not making it Straight and your still selling all of your supply just the same, I guess your attitude can be that it doesn’t matter and people don’t care—until it does and they do and by then its likely to be too late.
As I tweeted to the Colorado guy-in a few years there will be loads of used stills for sale cheap. Within a couple years the nation’s Garage Bays in nondescript Industrial Parks will be filled with over 1000 small drinkable alcohol factories. Saturation can’t be far off. A few will produce good stuff, be successfulI and grow. If your sweating over a still and it’s your life your going to think its great stuff. Family, Friends and Tasting Room guests may even tell you it’s great. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve lied so I don’t hurt their feelings. Whiskey, White Dog, Vodka, Wine you name it, lied my ass off along with my buddies with me. Rootbeer Flavored wine hardly deserves accolades but it’s another day of hope rather then reality to give a positive nod of acceptance or say its “tasty”. I might buy a bottle as a souvenir or memento. Oddly, it’s much like opening a new Resturant when the place is packed for a few months then the “For Sale” sign goes up the next year. These things won’t last unless you really have good things and they get better. Novelty wears off and quality lasts. Consumers have more and more choices. There is a point where the world won’t need another Strawberry flavored Whisky. It won’t take long for a customer to realize the Whisky the guy makes in that garage bay in Any City, USA is like the last guy’s. They will realize that the $25 stuff from Kentucky that costs half and tastes twice as good makes the trip from the cash register to the house. The places that survive are the ones with proven age and/or quality. Just because Balcones can make a good non-straight whisky doesn’t mean the next guy can or that it’s easy. Straight means so much more than age, it’s a sign on the road to quality.