Age statements on straight whiskies are now meaningless

Many American whiskey brands have been dropping age statements as the bourbon boom continues to erode stocks of aged whiskey.  As a consumer, I have always appreciated age statements. If an American whiskey has an age statement on the bottle, I have accepted that information as fact.  This blog post will touch on US federal laws regarding spirits labeling which some might find boring. Our laws on spirits are found in the Code of Federal Regulations – CFR’s.  Specifically, laws regarding alcohol are found in CFR Title 27. The CFR’s can be confusing so the TTB developed the Beverage Alcohol Manual – BAM. The BAM is an attempt to take language from the CFR’s and make it more approachable.  In addition, the TTB from time to time will issue additional guidance through ruling’s, industry circulars and other publications including TTB FAQ’s.

27 CFR 5.40 (a) addresses statements of age for American whiskey.  This regulation can be found at:

The law states that for straight whiskies over 4 years old, statements of age are optional.  If an optional age statement is included it shall appear in the same form as a whiskey that requires an age statement.  That form shall be the age of the youngest whiskey in “____years old”. The law does allow for straight whiskies of multiple years to be stated if the percent of each whiskey is disclosed.

This information is also covered in Ch. 8 of the BAM.

The BAM points out age may be understated but not overstated.  This means it is fine to bottle 8 year straight whiskey in a product that has a 6 year age statement.

The TTB also has a FAQ on spirits that addresses age statements:

This FAQ has the specific question of:

How should age be stated if the whisky consists of a mixture or blend of whiskies with different ages?

If the whisky contains no neutral spirits, the age must be stated either as the age of the youngest whisky, or as a statement that includes the age of each whisky in the mixture or blend, and the percentage of that whisky in the mixture or blend. If percentages are listed, they must be based on the percentage of the finished product, by a proof gallon basis, contributed by each listed whisky, and the percentages listed must add up to 100%.

This FAQ also gives acceptable formats for age statements:

What are examples of acceptable formats for age statements?

The following formats are acceptable:

  • _____ years old.
  • ____ months old.
  • Aged _____ years.
  • Aged at least ____ years.
  • Aged a minimum of ____ months.
  • Over ____ years old.
  • Aged not less than ____ years.
  • ___% whisky aged __ years; __% whisky aged ___ years.

If you read the above and followed the links, you should now be well versed an age statements on labels.  I was recently made aware of an interesting statement of age found of the back label of current Wild Turkey 101.   I love WT 101 and I think it is an incredible value for an everyday bourbon.  The label can be found here:

This label was approved on January 28, 2016. The back-label states ‘bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years’.   Obviously, this does not comply with the TTB acceptable age statements.  It would be fine to state Aged 6 years. Or they could state __% aged 6 years; __% aged 8 years.    Stating ‘up to’ does not meet the acceptable formats.  Stating a range of ages does not meet the acceptable format.

When labels are submitted for TTB approval the contact person who submitted label is listed.  I took this name and discovered it was a regulatory compliance director for Campari. I found email contact info and emailed asking about the discrepancies pointing out the same laws I noted above.   After 2 weeks I had received zero response.

I still wanted to find out why this label with an age statement such as this was approved, so I emailed the TTB.  In past blog posts I have complained about some of the labels that the TTB has approved, but I will give them credit in that anytime I have contacted them, I have always received some type of response.  In this case it was a phone call from Marsha Heath, a 20+ year veteran of the TTB. Marsha directed me to 27 CFR 5.40 (e) (2) regarding Miscellaneous Age Representations and pointed out the sections that have been bolded:

If any age, maturity, or similar representation is made relative to any distilled spirits (such representations for products enumerated in paragraph (d) of this section are prohibited), the age shall also be stated on all labels where such representation appears, and in a manner substantially as conspicuous as such representation: Provided. That the use of the word “old” or other word denoting age, as part of the brand name, shall not be deemed to be an age representation: And provided further, That the labels of whiskies and brandies (except immature brandies) not required to bear a statement of age, and rum and Tequila aged for not less than 4 years, may contain general inconspicuous age, maturity or similar representations without the label bearing an age statement.

The labels of whiskies not required to bear a statement of age – This would apply to straight whiskies over 4 years, which includes WT 101

may contain general inconspicuous age, maturity or similar representations without the label bearing an age statement 

Marsha declared the WT 101 back label statement of ‘bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years’ is ‘general in nature and inconspicuous located’ and therefore allowed by this section.  A few days after this phone call, I received an email response back from Campari that provided the exact same response. Enough so I would be very surprised if there was not some type coordinated response to my inquiry behind the scenes.

Stating 6 to 8 years old is not general, it’s specific and noticeable.  6 to 8 years is not a wide range and I suspect WT includes a good percentage of the 8 year old whiskey.  For me, the issue is not about this Wild Turkey label, the danger is that now a precedent has been set. If the TTB enforces this interpretation consistently to all brands, then there is nothing to stop the next brand from stating 4 to 25 years on the back label of a straight bourbon when just a very small fraction of the whiskey is 25 years old.  This would effectively render age statements meaningless to consumers.

Spirit award shows are all crap

A local craft distiller told me they get at least one phone call or letter every week asking them to participate in a spirit award show.  They all function about the same.  Send them a check for $500 per spirit entered along with 2 bottles. Practically all spirits entered will ‘win’ some type of award.  One show mentioned was the Beverly Hills Award show.  This is promoted as an “elite competition recognizing the very best”; winners could promote they ‘won’ an award from a prestigious address – Beverly Hills.  I did a little research and discovered their prestigious address was a rental post office in Beverly Hills. This rental post office advertised they specialized in folks wanting a Beverly Hills address and would forward mail/packages to wherever needed.  This is a complete pay to play sham.

Uneducated spirit buyers (i.e. whiskey taters) do like to see ‘awards’ on retail shelf talkers. It makes them feel good about their purchase. Most also have no clue there is more than 1 award show or anything about how they work.

A huge flaw in every award show is that they depend on the producers to select send in bottles for award consideration vs the award show buying the bottles.  Lots of whiskies are single barrel products that have variation between barrels. It’s very easy for a producer to pick a honey barrel to be judged.  That barrel might not taste anything like the rest of the barrels bottled. Even if it’s not a single barrel whiskey, there is nothing stopping a less scrupulous producer from gaming any bottle submitted.

Another way these shows are flawed are by the categories they purposely create.  How about Single Barrel Wheated Whiskey from 2 to 4 years old? If the field is limited to just a few possible entries, every whiskey will ‘win’ an award.  I’ve never seen a shelf talker that states the category the spirit won an award in. Since not all spirits are entered in every award show there is never a true best of award; it’s only best of what was entered.

The largest award show is the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  In 2017 2,253 spirits entered this competition and 2,083 of those ‘won’ a medal.  That’s a 92.4% win rate; guess the judges are not very strict.  That year the winner of best whiskey went to an unreleased to retail honey barrel product.  I know a judge, Fred Minnick, in this competition. I do give them credit that spirits are truly blind tasted, but judges do talk to each other and try to sway influence.  The founder was recently interviewed by Kenny Coleman on his Bourbon Pursuit podcast show;  Kenny’s Interview  Kenny did ask about producers entering honey barrels bottles and the founder sidestepped the question and does not think it happens with spirits.  In 2017, a producer won a double gold, SFWSC’s highest medal, for their Single Barrel Bourbon. They had sourced this whiskey from MGPi. I don’t know what they turned in to be judged but I bought a bottle at retail. I put in a blind tasting of 15 participants with a total of 20 whiskies, all blind to participants.  It finished 12th; hardly worthy of a double gold award. So who are you going to trust? The 2018 award winner was again another producer submitted single barrel product.

How long should these awards last?  Producers change production methods over time and NDP’s switch sources which means the whiskey changes as well.  Tito’s entered the San Francisco World Spirits in the second year of the competition, 2001.  Tito’s did ‘win’ a double gold medal. They never entered again and yet to this day still brag about that gold medal and the other Vodkas they beat in their advertising.  What they don’t say is 2 other Vodkas also ‘won’ double gold. The top winner also is stated as Best Vodka and that year it was not Tito’s; it was Wodka Wyborowa Vodka from Poland.

The only award the really matters is the one you give a whiskey. Tasting whiskey is very subjective; you may or may not agree with any so called expert panel.  That leads to the question of how to know if you like a whiskey before purchasing it? I have a goto bar that always brings in new whiskies and generally will give me a small taste to sample.  In my market there are several whiskey shows which is a great way to try new products. Another option is to have whiskey get togethers in your local town where everyone brings a bottle to share. I’ll repeat the only award the really matters is the one you give a whiskey.

This leads us to whiskey tater reason #6. Purchase a bottle of whiskey because a shelf talker mentioned it ‘won’ an award