Inside a locked room and surrounded by Prohibition era whiskey bottles, I was researching my next book, Bourbon Curious: A Simple Guide to the Savvy Drinker, and stumbled upon an interesting letter that made me question modern distillers.
Dated 2 December 1941, and addressed to Miss Marcella McKenna, secretary of the McKenna Distillery in Fairfield, Kentucky, the US Treasury Agency's deputy commissioner wrote: 'The analysis of the samples of the whiskey taken from the barrels set aside in your warehouse and from barrels set aside in a number of other warehouses throughout the country were not made for the purpose of grading the whiskey with respect to quality. The study made on your whiskey and the whiskey produced by other distillers was for the purpose of determining the chemical changes that take place in whiskey during the time it is stored in wooden packages...this office is concerned with the collection of taxes levied on distilled spirits...'
After the government required aged samples to determine how to appropriately tax them, the McKenna Distillery essentially wanted to know if its whiskey was better than its fellow distillers. It's a fair question, if you ask me, and a uniformed government whiskey-grading system may not be as farfetched as it sounds.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades everything from cotton to meat products and offers financial premiums to farmers. The higher a product grades, the more money the farmer receives. For example, in American beef, the USDA's three main grades - select, choice and prime - give consumers clear understanding of the hierarchy of quality, while the farmer earns more money. If a steer is graded prime, the cattleman will earn 20 per cent to 30 per cent more than if graded select.
What if American whiskey had a government grading system?
In some respects, the industry has a trade grading system - they're called competitions. But some competitions give medals out like candy; a Bronze or Silver simply means the company paid an entry fee and the whiskey didn't kill the judge. The medal sticker is slapped on the bottle and consumers think it's something special.
A modern American whiskey label is mostly marketing, manufacturing techniques, regulated terms that indicate age and a few tasting notes. But how does the consumer know if it's any good? Will they take the time to research before buying?
Well, they need to taste it, obviously. But imagine if you had a strong independent panel that rated every American whiskey bottling to verify quality and the distillers were required to place the rating on the bottle. Without knowing the common terms - such as Straight Bourbon Whiskey or Bottled-in-Bond - consumers could decipher the quality of the bourbon or rye just as they do with Select, Choice and Prime steaks.
I'm essentially suggesting another layer of government for the already highest taxed industry in the United States. The mere suggestion of this might land me at the bottom of the Ohio River with a nice pair of 50 pound concrete boots. So, distillers, before you call your hit men, please know I just want what's best for new American whiskey consumers.
Right now, new consumers are entering the category at unprecedented rates. While I hope they pick up this magazine, devour whiskey books and taste all the whiskeys they can (responsibly, of course), many newbies may taste a single bourbon and base their opinion off that one drink. Let's help them buy the right bottle of bourbon. Whether it comes from the government or an accrediting body, wouldn't a uniformed hierarchy of good, great and exceptional bourbon labels be good for new consumers?
Maybe not. As the 1940s American taxman said in his letter, whiskey quality is 'subject to controversy.' So, even after all that talk about a uniformed label quality system, I will agree with the Treasury Agency in 1941. The government assessing whiskey quality is a bad idea. Then again, the change of heart could be the future concrete boots talking.