In Bourbon We Do Not Trust

In Bourbon We Do Not Trust

It's all about the label

Thoughts from... | 04 Sep 2015 | Issue 130 | By Fred Minnick

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When the class-action lawsuits first hit whiskey brands, I remember thinking that if American whiskey can endure these, the category can survive just about anything.

The lawsuits suggested that some whiskey brands were misleading consumers with labeling, ranging from not disclosing the state of distillation to the use of fanciful terminology such as small batch and handcrafted.

One by one, the lawsuits have been dismissed. When dismissing the Maker's Mark handcrafted lawsuit, the judge made the comparison to the Keebler elves, saying that nobody really believes elves made his cookies. The plaintiffs in the Templeton case settled for what amounted to $3 to $6 refund per bottle of Templeton. Now I'm not a big city lawyer, but that didn't seem like much of a win.

There are still a few suits pending as of press time.

Meanwhile, brands that have labels in question are changing them to be in federal compliance and lowering their liability threshold. One alcohol attorney told craft distillers that the more non-regulated words they put on the bottle, the bigger target they become for lawyers.

Nonetheless, companies are finding new ways to inject marketing on labels that could be misconstrued as trying to deceive consumers. After a rollicking good time at Tales of the Cocktail, I found myself in the Atlanta airport duty free shop checking out the whiskey selection and came across a peculiar looking bottle. It was called 'American Spirit Whiskey' and claimed to be 'ultra filtered' and from 'American grain and bourbon-quality mash.' Now, if I'm a non-whiskey consumer, I might think that this bottle contains 'Bourbonquality' and buy the bottle for $24. On the back label, American Spirit Whiskey says it's '95 per cent grain neutral spirits, 5 per cent spirits from corn, rye and barley.' Bourbon has many technical requirements, none of which include mixing grain neutral spirits with a minority amount of spirits from corn, rye and barley. That's blatantly trying to capitalise on Bourbon without being remotely close to Bourbon.

It's happening elsewhere, too.

When I saw The Anvil Sonoma Cider, my mind went straight to something similar to the barrel-finish beers and I bought the four pack. I didn't further inspect the label in the store, but when I took a sip, I felt a saccharin-like flavour on my tongue I don't associate with ciders. I checked the label and the damn bottle said Bourbon-flavouring had been added. What the hell is Bourbon flavouring? Is that a thing?

Flavour companies have created Bourbon flavouring, so others can tap into the delicious flavour highway of Bourbon. Minnesota based extract maker Silver Cloud says its 'Bourbon extract, natural flavour blend' can be used in baking, beverages (including beer and wine), syrups and sauces.

Oh yummy.

In the Wright Bourbon-Flavoured Bacon Limited Edition, it lists in its ingredients that Bourbon flavouring is 'Maltodextrin, Natural Flavor, Modified Food Starch, Bourbon, Maple Syrup.' Hey, at least they put Bourbon in there, which is more than McDonald's can say for its Bourbon sauce served in the Kentucky market. There are Bourbonflavoured toothpicks, jerky and whipped cream on the market.

I guess everybody is trying to capitalise on Bourbon's popularity, and I suppose the business side of me enjoys the capitalistic minded society taking advantage of a trend. But I can't help but look at this from a historical perspective and ask how would Jim Beam or Pappy Van Winkle feel about today's marketing.

As soon as the non-distiller producers begin placing the state of distillation on all labels, a new form of label trickery begins, and marketers create new taglines and strategic messages that contradict what's actually inside the bottle. Even worse, so called Bourbon flavouring doesn't even contain bourbon.

What's this world coming to?

The future could very well be a grocery aisle filled with Bourbon flavoured rubbish. Bourbon-flavoured Keebler cookies, anybody?
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