When is a lie a lie and when is it just a little fib? Santa knows!
The bourbon world is quite fuzzy. Omission is the fib of choice for most brands. I have already posted a past story, “What is in a bourbon label and how to read it.”
It may not matter if you already enjoy the bourbon you are drinking, but it is better to know the truth than go along with the lie.
If it’s not on the label, then is it true?
There are specific rules stating what can be called bourbon and what cannot. To be bourbon, it must be made in the United States, aged in new charred-oak barrels, the mash must be 51% corn, it cannot enter the barrel at more than 125 proof, and nothing can be added but water to reduce the proof.
In theory, if you meet the above criteria, you can call it bourbon. An age statement appeals to most enthusiasts since the longer it ages, the more flavors are introduced. Straight bourbon must be aged at least two years. Without an age statement on the label, it may have only been aged six months.
Blended bottles open a whole new set of issues. Legally, blended whiskey must disclose the youngest bourbon in the barrel. A blended 4-6-9-year-old bourbon would be labeled as a 4-year-old bourbon.
One way of knowing the bourbon’s age is if it is labeled “single barrel.” Again, age statements for single barrels are only required for bourbons aged four years or less. Most newer distilleries will omit the age statement altogether due to branding. A 4-year-old bourbon doesn’t sound exciting when compared to a 15-year-old. Accentuate the positives and hide the negatives.
History of the brand
The best stories come from bourbon brands. Old so-and-so got the secret mash recipe from underneath the porch and it has been in the family ever since. Just put it down and walk away. Currently, there are over 1,400 distilleries in the nation. I promise you not every brand has a great story. Unfortunately, “My best friend and I decided to make bourbon” does not sell as well as grandpappy’s secret recipe does.
I suggest doing a little research. Not every distiller pulls from a glacier-filled stream or an aquifer named after the brand. Another little white lie is the term “family-owned.” Yes, it was family-owned at one time, but that was before ABC Corp. bought them out for millions of dollars.
Marketing plays a large role in the success of bourbon brands and a great story helps build that brand. So, the next time you read a great story on the back of a label, just make sure you take it at face value.
Is it a distillery?
By law, you can call your company a distillery without actually having a distillery. Crazy, I know, but it happens all the time, especially with new brands. To be defined as a distillery, you must have a working still that produces said spirit.
Be on the lookout for the term “bottled by, made by and produced by.” “Bottled by” means that someone else distilled the bourbon and John’s Bourbon bottled it only for sale and distribution. Just because a brand has a copper pot and mash vats does not mean it produces its own bourbon.
It has been revealed that some distilleries create bourbons for other brands. Furthermore, read the label for the state of distillation. If the state designation is missing, chances are it was distilled in a different state than it was produced. Shocking, I know, but it’s all about the money.
Be aware of new distillers selling bourbon. It takes two years to be called straight bourbon. They can, however, sell unaged white whiskey. Here again, is a brand misleading you into thinking you are buying bourbon from one distiller but drinking another’s recipe.
When in doubt, look it up
One great thing about living in the information age is that most bourbon brands can be viewed online. Customer reviews, complaints or chat boards will give you a secondhand view of the brand. Take all information with a grain of salt unless you verify it.
There are plenty of websites, magazines and forums on the web, so do your homework before you spend a fortune on a bottle that is different from what it says it is. Bourbon hunting and drinking can be fun with a bit of time and effort. Just be aware of the marketing.
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