The Straight Story
Lies and misdirection don’t just apply to the food we buy in the grocery store. No, these two pillars of American capitalism are alive and well in the wine and spirits trade too.
Just last night I was at a sparkling wine tasting where the instructor cautioned to participants to be vigilant for the phrase “Fermented in this bottle” instead of the less desirable, “Fermented in the bottle.” The former is indicative of a time honored tradition that one associates with the production of Champagne. The later sounds virtually identical, but takes meaningful shortcuts which result in a different outcome.
But I was thinking of something even more devious. Something that almost never appears on a bottle’s label in most of the world, and something that makes consumers believe a product may be of a higher quality than it is.
When you look at an aged whisky, it’s brown. All the spirits writers have an amazing vocabulary for describing all the different shades of brown that whisky can be.
So what are some factors at play when evaluating the color of a whisky?
1) The type and age of the barrel. Newer and more charred barrels lend a deeper color to what came off the still as a clear spirit.
2) The length of time the spirit has spent in the barrel. The longer it’s in there, the darker it will get. In a sense, barrels are much like teabags. And it’s true that, like tea, whisky can be oversteeped.
Regardless, I think most people will look at two similar whiskeys and assume the darker one is an older, bolder, and probably better spirit. It’s true that we taste with our eyes, which is part of the rationale that Kraft uses for adding artificial color to their Macaroni and Cheese.
But it turns out whisky producers add color to their wares too. Bastards. Yes, it’s caramel color, which you may remember is a dreaded and vile ingredient found in many sodas. However, the one used in spirits is fairly benign. You know, aside from the inherent dishonesty in the practice.
This discovery had me contemplating abandoning brown spirits almost entirely. I was prepared to live a life devoted to clear spirits. It wouldn’t be so bad. Gin is great. White rum is super. And a good tequila can really hit the spot. Let’s not forget the grainy goodness of unaged whiskey, either.
I could do that, and I would probably be able to supplement my liquor cabinet with an occasional bottle of aged craft spirits made with integrity.
However, before I walked away from Manhattans and the bottle of Evan Williams in the pantry, I decided to do a bit more research. And it wasn’t easy to untangle. Amazingly, the production of American bourbon whiskey has a lot of quality protections baked into the law. Sure, the feds may be dropping the ball in other regards, but dammit they are going to keep our bourbon pure.
The word to look for on the bottle is “Straight” immediately preceding the word “Bourbon”.
I always thought the phrase “Straight Bourbon” was marketing hogwash. But now I know it’s not the case. If the spirit bears that name, then it was aged in 100% new oak and has no added colors.
That’s the whiskey for me. Honest.