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:https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/27/5.40

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.  https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter8.pdf

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:  https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml

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:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/viewColaDetails.do?action=publicFormDisplay&ttbid=16006001000132

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.

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15 thoughts on “Age statements on straight whiskies are now meaningless

  1. It is going too far to say “age statements on straight whiskies are now meaningless.” Just statements in the form Wild Turkey has decided to use are meaningless. A traditional age statement, i.e., “This whiskey is 6-years-old,” continues to mean what it has always meant and is still as reliable as it has always been.

  2. This has been discussed several times on Reddit’s r/bourbon – going back to when this 2015 label first saw use. Kudos to you for actually getting on the phone with the regulators to get to the bottom of it. While I don’t think it’s as misleading as the infamous “Old No. 8,” its potential as a precedent is far worse and I think that’s the takeaway here.

    Do I believe Wild Turkey is trying to be deceptive? No. In fact, per several recent public comments by Bruce Russell, the latest batches of WT 101 contain 7-10 year old KSBW. I honestly think the Russells are striving for a better product everyday.

    But I’ll re-state: while I don’t find this example particularly misleading, the potential here is far worse. Thanks Wade. dj

    1. Another way I see age statements being degraded is by having bottles that are NAS but actively promoting it has a age in marketing. WT new Longbranch is example of this. In all the PR info they sent out, it’s stated as 8 year old Bourbon, but the bottle is NAS.

      1. I think you and I both know why this is done. The initial release is most likely the age as stated in promotional materials; however, should there be future releases, the company is no longer married to an age, nor would they face the ridicule of dropping an age (had it been on the label of the initial release).

        I love Wild Turkey. I do. But I think most of us know that this stuff is becoming far too common. Wild Turkey is just one example. There are others and I expect to see it continue. A shame, really.

  3. “Bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years” is a totally meaningless statement and obviously meant to confuse consumers. The only meaning it conveys is that there is nothing older than 8 years in the bottle. Any whiskey meeting the Bourbon mash bill requirements that has been poured into a charred container for 5 minutes could be “bourbon perfectly aged for up to six to eight years”. There is no lower limit in that statement. This is contrary to the regulation that everything must be at least as old as the stated age.

  4. Wade, I was turned on to your blog by the recent ink that Chuck provided you, and I truly appreciate your perspective.

    On the matter at hand, let me first say that I have an immense amount of respect for the Russell family and cherish the continuity they have brought to the brand. With Eddie’s son Bruce now involved, it appears that lineage will remain intact. For this I am grateful. I’m sure this was not their doing.

    My concern here is that the statement now being used on the bottle, “up to six to eight years,” could actually be used to describe a 4 year old whiskey. A more relevant term would be “at least,” but even that would not solve the issue you raise. It reminds me of the supposedly now-prohibited term “aged less than four years,” which I recently saw on two new whiskeys from Bluebird Distilling in Pa. Most likely they’re only months old. How does this stuff make it through the approval process?

    In a time when whiskey consumers worldwide increasingly demand transparency, I’m surprised that Campari marketing would resort to this intentionally vague approach.

    1. Thanks Sam. I also saw your comment you Chuck’s blog. I put this on the steps on the bean counters at Campari and not on the Russell’s who I also admire greatly. To answer how it happens – the TTB depends of folks following the law and assumes all do. On all label submittals, companies sign a statement that under penalty of perjury that they label they are submitting complies with all federal laws.

  5. I went out to the garage and dug through my empties- the 81 proof has always made the 6-8 years age claim on the back label. It was added to the 101 with the latest label change about 2 years ago. The 81 rye had a statement on the back stating it was made with 4-5 year old rye- no “up to.” It was dropped with the label change a few years ago.
    While it may be admissible by the TTB, it’s not totally truthful and can lead to consumer confusion. I believe this type of labeling should not be allowed.

  6. Wade, (this may be a topic for another article??)
    your opening line…..”Many American whiskey brands have been dropping age statements as the bourbon boom continues to erode stocks of aged whiskey.”

    …is it really the bourbon boom? Or, is it that many of the brands that were once regional….are now national brands or even world wide brands…..and how that is artificially creating an erosion of bourbon stocks.
    It is my theory that the main producers are artificially creating a bourbon deficit so that they can charge many times what the bourbon is worth when selling it.

    Just imagine…..when a bourbon producer opens up a new state to a label. They will have to supply all the distributors throughout the state with pallets of every size bottle, as well as, stocking every wholesaler with ample supply, as well as, liquor stores, restaurants, bars, hotels, airport lounges, et al….with product and back-up product. That is a large supply of product that sits still for quite a while until time to reorder. Which will potentially eliminate thousands and thousands of barrels out of the aging warehouses. Those barrels that are now eliminated will not be there to supply the regions that used to have ample supply. And when a producer opens up many new states…the problem multiplies. My thought is….that the producers have opened up too many new markets….to which they can’t ever get close to fully supplying them all. Which creates an artificial deficit in supply.

    I find it strange that age statements began to disappear well before this ‘bourbon boom’ became a thing. If I remember correctly….it started with Buffalo Trace when they brought out their BTAC labels. Those labels sold for….well above the top shelf items price of the day. The initial idea came from the tequila issue that arose from the cactus freeze….when tequila prices spiked and consumers still were willing to buy at the higher price. So, I am thinking this is all just a money grab by the producers who not only control the supply….but try and control price and demand as best they can.

    The producers used to have no problem supplying age stated products at a reasonable price. Now, there are almost no age statements…and bourbon is allocated in almost every market, while the prices have sky rocketed.

    Thoughts?

    1. There are brands that specializing in limited availability; I call that fake allocation and it will be the topic for another blog post. But there is no doubt that overall sales of Bourbon have been increasing for past 10 years.

  7. Just got an email from Glenlivet inviting me to preorder a whisky called “Code” for $130 that openly boasts that it has no age statement

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