Changing the Game

American Single Malt Whiskey CommissionLast night, I happened to be lawyering (I’m pretty sure that is a verb) at an excellent local distillery.  Yes, I do know how lucky I am.

And after we completed the agenda for our meeting, we stood around the beautifully crafted wooden bar in the distillery’s tasting room and I happened to notice something that hadn’t been there during my last visit.  It wasn’t a new spirit; I keep a very close watch on this distillery’s products.  It was a sticker adhered to the mirror built into the bar.  Now, I have many character flaws, but those flaws generally do not include shyness or a lack of curiosity.  So I asked about the sticker.

As it happens, the distillery had signed on to the recently formed American Single Malt Whiskey Commission.  The sticker was an acknowledgment of their participation in the effort to establish legal recognition for this new category of spirits in the United States.

Perhaps some background would be helpful.  The rules of the TTB include what are referred to as “standards of identity” – which are essentially the categories into which various spirits are considered to fall.  Under these standards, for example, rum is defined as:

Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).

With this in place, no matter how much you may like your “rum” made from fermented honey, you don’t get to call it rum – at least not in the United States.

So what’s the problem with American Single Malt Whiskey?  The problem is that there is no such category within the standards of identity.  In other words, from the standpoint of the TTB, “American Single Malt Whiskey” isn’t a thing.  And even though the purveyors of “American Single Malt Whiskey” (including the lovely distillery I was visiting last night) generally make their hooch in a fashion that would render it “Scotch Whisky” if made in Scotland – those same standards of identity say you can’t call something “Scotch” if it isn’t made in Scotland.

So what do you do if the rules prevent you from doing what you need to do (and what is probably the right thing to do)?  You take a page from the playbook of J. Tiberius Kirk and rewrite the rules of the game.

Yep, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission aims to go all Kobayashi Maru on the standards of identity.  By creating a groundswell of support for this [not yet legally recognized] category, educating consumers as to the nature of the product and assembling a critical mass of producers making product that conforms to their adopted definition, the Commission aims to force the TTB – when it next examines the standards of identity for potential revision – to adopt this as a category. Personally, I think this is brilliant.

So what is American Single Malt Whiskey according to the Commission?  It is whiskey that is:

  • Made from 100% malted barley;
  • distilled entirely at one distillery;
  • mashed, distilled and matured in the US;
  • matured in oak casks (no larger than 700 liters);
  • distilled to no more than 80% ABV; and
  • bottled at no less than 40% ABV.

Looking over at the HoochLaw spirit library, I see five bottles that would qualify (two from Copperworks and three from Westland).  So it is no surprise that both of those distilleries have signed on as members of the Commission.  But the list doesn’t stop there.  The list of member producers on the Commission website reads like a bucket list of distilleries to visit for interesting and unique American whiskies (e.g., Corsair, Santa Fe, Headframe, FEW and more).  There is serious firepower behind this group.

So if you’re a producer looking to further the cause, consider joining up and lending your support.  And if you’re a consumer – stay tuned.  Things are about to get delicious.


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