There seem to be more and more American whiskeys on the market that are blends of different types of whiskeys from different distillers. In the world of Scotch, it’s pretty easy to determine what a blend is. A combination of two or more single malts from different distilleries is a blended malt and a combination of malt and grain whiskies is a blended whisky. In America, it’s much more complicated. Most people still associate blended whiskey with the budget blends that combine whiskey with neutral spirts, but there are a lot more types of blends out there that are 100% whiskey.
Suppose I am a whiskey bottler, and I’ve got some casks to play with. Let’s see what I can make.
1. First, I combine straight bourbons from two different Kentucky distilleries. That's “straight bourbon.” Unlike in Scotland, US law doesn’t change the classification if you mix whiskey from different distilleries, as long as they are from the same state.
2. Now, let’s say we combine a straight bourbon from Kentucky with a straight bourbon from Indiana. That’s a “blend of straight bourbons.” Since the bourbons are not from the same state, it’s considered a blend.
3. Okay, that was fun, but my Kentucky/Indiana blend isn’t selling. It’s really light colored and sort of bitter, so I’m going to make the same blend as above, a straight bourbon from Kentucky and a straight bourbon from Indiana, but I’m going to add caramel coloring and sugar not exceeding 2.5% by volume. That’s still a “blend of straight bourbons.” While straight whiskey can never have additives (and even non-straight bourbon can’t have additives), blends of straight whiskey, including bourbon, can have additives, and it doesn’t have to be disclosed on the label, so now I’ve got a dark, sweet blend and no one is the wiser.
4. Now I’ve got some this six month old Kentucky bourbon that I got cheap, but it’s terrible, so I’m going to mix that with some straight Kentucky bourbon. Well, that’s just “bourbon.” It can’t be straight because one of the components is too young.
6. Okay, how about I have an “accident” in my warehouse and blend Kentucky straight bourbon and Kentucky straight rye? That’s “a blend of straight whiskeys.”
7. Lastly, I’m going to blend some one year old, non-straight rye with my Kentucky straight bourbon. This one is going to depend on how much straight bourbon is in the mix. If it’s 51% or more straight bourbon, then it’s “blended bourbon.” If it’s between 20% and 51% straight bourbon then it’s “blended whiskey,” and if it’s less than 20% straight bourbon, then it’s just “whiskey.”
Needlessly complicated much? That’s just the tip of the iceberg too. I could come up with at least 5 or 10 more types of combinations. Now that all-whiskey blends are starting to proliferate, these regs could do for some modernization. For instance, why are blends of the same types of whiskeys from the same state treated differently than blends of the same stuff from different states (I’m thinking it might have been to protect whiskeys from a certain whiskey-producing state)? And why is anything labeled “straight” allowed to have additives? Surely we can come up with a better system.