Vague Vagaries

I was catching up on American whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery's blog this week and I saw this very appropriate post about the TTB -- the government agency that approves liquor labels for the domestic market. Chuck's best point about the issues we face with labelling was this one:

One big problem is that the COLA process is largely run on the honor system. They expect producers to know and obey the rules. They usually only question something on a COLA application if it is wrong on its face, and sometimes not even then. The problem has gotten nothing but worse. Clearly, TTB is overwhelmed, and their 'honor system' is crumbling. When it comes to consumers being able to trust that the alcoholic beverage products they buy and consume are labeled correctly, we simply cannot.

This is entirely true (as I know from experience) which is how K&L managed to get a 120 year old Armagnac into the United States last year (even though we explicitly told them and the people who bought it that it wasn't actually that old).

But something I've been alluding to lately that some people have seemed to pick up on is that everything in the booze industry is based on the honor system. EVERYTHING. Everything we know is based on what brands tell us. Everything techincal you've read on this blog, or any other blog about booze, was gleaned from the producer. There is no independent quality control agency making sure the whiskies are as old as the labels say they are, or checking up on claims that state the whisky doesn't have additives; no one knows for sure what's in any bottle except for the people who put it in there. We as whiskey retailers (and whiskey fans) and you as whiskey drinkers are taking the brand's word for it every time you buy one of their products. When I say that the K&L spirits blog is not a journalistic resource, this is what I mean. It doesn't mean I'm lying, it means I don't know if I'm lying because everything I "know" is based on what I'm being told (and, no, tasting notes do not count as journalism).

To many of us this isn't old news, but I'm not sure how many spirits fans knew just how lax the regulations were. I'm not insinuating that any one company is lying about their specs, nor am I looking to start controversy; I'm merely looking to out-cynic the cynics. There are people out there who think they're too smart to be fooled, or too on-top-of-it to be tricked into anything (wink, wink). Yet, there are no third-party journalists going around, visiting each distillery to make sure each barrel meets the age statement minimum. The entire business is, like Chuck said, built on the honor system; there are no industry watchdogs looking out for you other than those of us who write about spirits (but who would be stupid enough to believe a retailer, right?) Spirits companies closely guard their secrets, so as a result there are only two forms of writing when it comes to booze -- that which takes the word of the producer for granted, and that which questions it.

What I am definitely not saying (because sometimes you have to be clear and not leave anything up for interpretation) is that there is some giant conspiracy going on, where brands are trying to lie to you, fool you, and cheat you out of your money. I'm just saying that I've been around long enough to understand that things are not black and white in life, nor are they with whisky. I've been to Cognac and had producers tell me they don't use additives, only to see those very additives in their distillery and taste those very additives in their brandy. I know people who have worked at wineries that produce 100% pinot noir, yet remember dumping buckets of syrah into the vat to add extra richness. What I'm saying is that some producers will inevitably fudge the numbers every now and again.

But we live in a world that is increasingly interested in black and white specs -- what exactly is in my whiskey?! I want to know exactly what I'm drinking. We think that by forcing more information on to the label we'll know the answer to this question. Yet, as the TTB has shown us, the label doesn't mean anything. Even if the label says you're drinking 100% single malt, how do you know that the producer didn't dump something else into the vat that he conveniently left off the label? You don't. You'll never know. The only people who will know are the people who put the liquid in the bottle and, believe me, if putting more information on the bottle will help them sell more whisky, they're willing to do it. You want it to say "single barrel, cask strength" on the front? Sure, we'll do that.

Ironically enough, while most people will assume big companies would be the first to cheat the system, I think the conglomorates are probably more honest with their labels because of the greater potential for whistle blowers and the broader effect of the penalties for violating such a law. There are more people involved with the process that likely wouldn't stand for such treachery. But is it "treachery"? It's been going on since the invention of the booze industry! It's only recently that we wanted answers to these specific questions, to bask in the holy purity of a 100% transparent product. We want this information so that we can help justify spending our money, to help us make a decision, and to ultimately increase the enjoyment of our appreciation.

I'm with you here, believe me. I want these things, too.

But I've realized that many of these purities don't actually exist. Things that I thought were clear became much more cloudy when I dug deeper. Which is why I say to you, "just enjoy it." Not because anyone might be taking things too seriously, but because if you're depending on the specs to make or break your experience, you're depending on the honor of the people who made the product. If you're skeptical that brands can be trusted, then you might as well not trust anything you read either.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll