The late 1960s were hard times for American Distilleries. Whiskey sales were declining every year. New products such as Vodka and Tequila were gaining market share at astonishing rates. Light beer was growing in popularity as consumers wanted less alcohol and calories in their life. American whiskey distilleries were closing down every year. The American whiskey distilleries needed to do something to create more sales. Their answer was to create a new category of whiskey – light whiskey.

Regulations state that whiskey must be distilled at 180 proof or less. The higher the distillation proof, the less flavor in the alcohol. That is why Vodka, defined as a “flavorless and odorless spirit”, is distilled at 190 proof or higher. The idea was to create a category of “light whiskey” by distilling the spirits between 180 and 189 proof and then age it in used cooperage to create a “lighter” flavor in the whiskey. The result was a spirit with very little flavor. In 1968, a new category was created, “Light Whiskey”, with the first product to be on the market after July 1, 1972.  Distilleries quickly started making this style of whiskey in the United States.

I am sure that this push for light whiskey came from the marketing people in the distilling industry. Whiskey producers recognized that the consumer was purchasing vodka because it does not have flavor and mixes well with juices to make cocktails like The Screwdriver (Vodka and orange juice) or Bloody Mary (Vodka and tomato juice). Make a light whiskey for these drinks and consumers will purchase it instead of Vodka. Products were introduced such as “Old Crow Light” from National Distillers and “QT” from Barton Distillery. These whiskeys were light in color and flavor. The fact was, the consumers did not want a light flavor in these drinks, they wanted no alcohol flavor in them at all. Light whiskey did not catch on and the category failed to create the sales the distilleries were hoping for. 

Brown-Forman decided to try something different. They took some 8 year old whiskey made in Pennsylvania and filtered it until there was no color left in the whiskey. Thus, “Frost 8/80”was born. It was as clear as water and bottled at 80 proof. Unfortunately for Brown-Forman, the filtering also removed most of the flavor as well. The only remaining flavor in the whiskey was the flavor of wood. The whiskey tasted of sawdust. The brand was a flop. It was so bad that Brown-Forman recalled all of the bottles from the selves and had it redistilled into ethanol for industrial use. The modern “Whiskey Row” series from Brown-Forman shows that they learned their lesson from Frost 8/80 well! They are not ignoring the great flavors in their whiskey.

American whiskey distillers had lost their way. It would take until the 1980s for them to find their way back into the market. What they did in the 1980s was to convince consumers that whiskey could be enjoyed for its flavor. The answer was not to remove that flavor, but revel in the fruit notes, spices, and wood flavors in whiskey. They created a new category of whiskey with “super-premium brands” that were single barrel and small batch products. They started talking about age statements with whiskeys that were 10, 12, 15, and even 20 years old. The idea was to enhance the flavors through barrel selections and maturation. It worked and consumers started purchasing not only these super-premium brands, but also the brands that these brands evolved from.

So what happened to all of that light whiskey? Most of the brands simply faded away. The whiskey often ended up being used in blended whiskey. As Susan Reigler and I worked on our American Whiskey Notebook, I do not recall finding any light whiskey brands to review. The distilleries lost their way for a while, but eventually found the correct path and today’s Bourbon boom is the result.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller