A (Very Brief) History of Straight Whiskey

The legal kind of straight, that is, not the kind without ice

Straight is a ubiquitous term on American whiskey bottles, but like so much else on a label, it’s not always well understood. When I write these articles, in addition to examining codes and historical documents, I am always interested in taking a look at what Google’s top hits have to say, and people seem to want to make this concept more complicated than it is.  The fact is, “straight” simply means that the liquor in the bottle was in a new, charred oak barrel for at least two years.[i] If the whiskey is a blend of different barrels of different ages (as most whiskey is), then the youngest whiskey in there must meet that threshold. That’s it. Sure, the liquor’s got to be distilled and barreled below a certain proof, and bottled at or above a certain proof, and can’t have additives or colorings, but those are rules for calling it whiskey, not calling it straight. Two years in a barrel is all you need for that.

The rationale for straight whiskey is the same as the broader (and previously discussed) Bottled in Bond label. Rectifiers were adding colorings and flavors to neutral spirits and calling it whiskey, skipping the complexity, time, and expense of lower-proof distillation and barrel aging. Bottled in Bond was a comprehensive response to that problem, incorporating rules for proofing, distilling season, and what warehouse the barrel was in, in addition to a four-year aging requirement, all so distillers could put a label of authenticity on the bottle.

The Bottled in Bond rules happened all at once, in 1897, and solved an immediate kind of problem. Over time, as broader food safety laws were enacted, all those requirements became somewhat unnecessary, but distillers and consumers still valued that mark of authenticity. They wanted something that would distinguish distillers that adhered to a stricter, more traditional approach without quite so many hoops to jump through. So through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the court cases about what constitutes “pure” whiskey that followed, the Taft Decision about the definition of whiskey in 1909 (the subject of an upcoming article), and all the way through Prohibition and the Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, the concept of “straight” whiskey evolved and was codified.

While writing this I pulled all the (American) whiskey bottles out of my cabinet and checked the labels. All straight, save one: Ranger Creek in San Antonio, like other distilleries in the south, doesn’t age its spirit nearly as long as they do in cooler climates. As you might imagine, though, that’s the exception to the rule. Nearly all whiskey is aged for at least two years and qualifies as straight.[ii] There’s a minute amount of corn whiskey (which is often unaged or minimally aged), a few southern microdistilleries like Ranger Creek, and young spirits that new craft distillers put out to make ends meet while they wait for the straight stuff to age, but that’s about it. As other terms and labels have come and gone, “straight” has been an indicator of a traditional whiskey for over 100 years, and it shows no sign of fading.

[i] 27 CFR 5.22(b)(iii) and (iv). Small exception to the new charred barrel bit if you happen to be making corn whiskey.

[ii] The whiskey part of blended whiskey (which is really a mix of whiskey and vodka) is usually aged at least two years, and can be labeled “blended straight whiskey.”

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