Many people see the word “Straight” on a whiskey label and do not realize that single word represents decades of struggle to protect consumers from adulterated whiskey. The story of the term “straight” starts in the middle of the nineteenth century. Aging whiskey in charred barrels had become very popular with consumers and therefore profitable to distillers. This meant time sitting in the barrel taking on color and flavor from the wood. There was loss of product through evaporation as well as a lag time between producing the whiskey and the reaping of the profits. Some producers found this bothersome. The result was that by the 1860s there were people taking shortcuts using artificial flavoring and color, amongst other things, to make whiskey. There were no regulations at that time so they could label their product “Bourbon” or “Rye” as they sold it to the consumer. These “Recitifiers” were often more interested in profit than flavor.
Recitifiers were flooding the market with adulterated whiskey and keeping the price low to the consumers. Many distillers who made bourbon and rye whiskey the traditional way- aging the whiskey for years- were having a hard time competing. Making “straight’ whiskey the traditional way, with only the distilled spirit and barrel providing the flavor, just couldn’t compete for the consumer dollar. It also meant the consumer was often getting an inferior product. Marion Taylor of Wright and Taylor had one product that he advertised as “we will make this 9 years old product while you wait.” The distillers of straight bourbon and rye decided they needed to get government help to distinguish their products from the rectified products. The result was the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. This Regulation did not allow anything to be added to the aged whiskey other than pure water. It guaranteed it was straight whiskey, though governmental definition for this term came later.
The next step in the evolution of straight whiskey came in 1909 with the Taft Decision. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act created a question of what qualified to be called “whiskey”. After several years of debate President William Howard Taft made his decision on whiskey on December 27, 1909. In his decision he defined straight whiskey as a whiskey aged for at least two years with nothing added to it but pure water to adjust the proof. His decision also defined “Blended” and “artificial” whiskeys as well. His ruling stands today with only one modification to the rule – In 1938 it became a requirement that brand new charred cooperage would be required to make straight whiskey.
In the 21st century the straight whiskey category is once again under attack and being weakened to the detriment of the consumer. There are whiskeys being bottled that use the term straight that have been flavored by putting the whiskey in wine or spirits barrels. (It’s worth noting here that if a whiskey is labeled as “bourbon” it can never have anything but pure water added, even if it’s not labeled straight.) There are companies that are taking the word straight off their label for unknown reasons. The consumer should be asking why and if they are adulterating their whiskey causing them to be no longer straight. Straight whiskey is a pure form of whiskey that should be cherished for its flavor and heritage. Look for it on the label of your favorite bourbon or rye.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl