Can We Trust Whiskey Labels?

Has the TTB Failed Us?

The label on a bottle of whiskey is extremely important to consumers. There’s a vast amount of information that can be gleaned from each label. What happens when we can no longer trust the information presented to us? The consumer is in trouble. If you’re not familiar, the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is responsible for regulating and approving whiskey labels. They’ve also been the center of whiskey label controversies over the past few years. Without diving too deep in to the controversy, multiple distilleries and Non-Distiller Producers (NDP’s) have been called out for mislabeling their products. Their response was “the labels were approved by the TTB” or some other form of a hand washing rebuttal.

Bourbon TTB Offenders

Who is the TTB? Read their mission statement below to get a better idea.

Our mission is to collect Federal excise taxes on alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and ammunition and to assure compliance with Federal tobacco permitting and alcohol permitting, labeling, and marketing requirements to protect consumers.

Based on their own mission statement and their recent behavior it’s fair to say that they’ve put tax collecting in front of compliance. Since 2008 the TTB performs an annual self-audit to determine whether or not they’ve done a good job. In their own words:

TL;DR: They buy bottles of liquor, wine and beer at a store and test them against their own regulations.

Our Bureau’s mission to protect the public includes ensuring that labels on alcohol beverages contain adequate descriptive information and are not likely to mislead consumers. Established in 2008, TTB’s Alcohol Beverage Sampling Program (ABSP) is a random survey of products in the marketplace to evaluate our success in meeting this mission and to determine where compliance issues exist.

Each year we conduct the ABSP by purchasing products from the marketplace and bringing them to our offices for label assessments to determine if products are in compliance with our labeling regulations. Following the label assessments, we send the products to our laboratories to undergo a series of analyses to determine compliance with certain information displayed on the product labels.

Here are the results from the past 4 sampling’s:

TTB report

The biggest offender is alcohol content. That means almost a quarter of the bottles tested over the last 4 years didn’t have the correct proof on the label. Granted, the rules are pretty strict and require the label proof to be within 0.15% of the contents. But, isn’t that was we expect? Shouldn’t the proof on the label match the proof in the bottle? This chart doesn’t provide the whole story. Not every offense carries the same weight. I don’t really care if a label is .30% over proof but I do care if mandatory information has been left off of a label. One of the biggest problems has been labels that don’t disclaim the state the whiskey was distilled in. Most of these mistake were probably overlooked by the TTB during approval and this survey.

Ultimately, there’s fault on both sides. The TTB forces producers to sign off on their label “under penalty of perjury” that the information on their label is correct and meets all applicable laws. Then, you ask the producer why their label isn’t up to code and they claim “the TTB approved this”. No one wants to take responsibility. It wasn’t until bourbon enthusiast banned together that the TTB started to take action. Wade Woodard has been a leader on multiple bourbon boards and forums (check out his list of non compliant labels) urging the TTB to enforce its own rules. Is his words “It’s easy to cheat on your taxes & some get away it, but others get audited and caught.” 

Lets revisit the original question. Can we trust whiskey labels? It’s a hard question to answer but I’d give a hesitant “yes”. The TTB approves thousands of labels every year and while mistakes or oversights will happen the TTB appears to be making changes for the better. In the meantime Bourbonr will keep you informed about as many whiskey label mistakes as possible. The information is out there. We’d just rather see it presented correctly on the label.

 Two items I’d like strictly enforced by the TTB:

– Age statement if  the Whiskey is less than 4 years old. (27 CFR 5.40(a) )

– “Distilled in” – with the state of distillation (TTB 5.36(d))


    Amen to both of those items you’d like strictly enforced, especially in light of producers who will always use NDP for their product, but also up-and-coming distilleries that are still using NDP product until their own comes of age.

    Points taken. As a novice to sipping bourbon, this labeling issue is very important! I actually read the label before buying. Thanks to sites like yours, especially the reviews, I just might come across a good Whiskey!

    Lets be honest. Let the USA set the example for the rest of the world. Age statement on all bourbon, not matter what. And location of distillation always on label. And keep all the rest accurate. No reason to keep any of that secret. It it’s good bourbon, it will be reported and we will buy it.

    The problem is age can vary from batch to batch. Take the regular Buffalo Trace offering. It’s great, reasonably priced bourbon that’s typically 8-9 years. That means they’d have to get new label approval with an 8 year on the label but then for some reason they have some 7 year old bourbon that fits the flavor profile. That means new labels and more $$$. NAS bourbons have their place. What’s most important and we enforce the rules already in place.


    We are at a point in the season where the mad rush for VW / BTAC is dying down. The Holidays are over. Gifts have been given. Good times have been had by all…

    SO, why do so many retailers still think they can get ludicrous prices for the BTAC / VW stocks? Now I understand and “get” that due to ridiculous demand and limited supply of the aforementioned products, there will naturally be an increase in “retail” price at the counter level. But, when a store has the audacity to charge $2999.99 (PVW 23 – Westchester Wine Warehouse, White Plains NY) when WE ALL KNOW that the product retails for only $249.99 (slp). That is not just gouging, its robbery & being wholly dishonest. You want to charge 40% over list ($416.65) – while still HIGH – its understandable due to the fanaticism the product is currently experiencing.

    We all need to make money to survive & thrive – it’s America – I get it. But when it’s at the condition of just being a Lowlife (and that’s WHAT, if you do decide to rape & pillage regarding the mark ups, you are being!!). You might want to re-evaluate the your business practices, especially if you have to resort to this sort of thievery to survive.

    Now retail is the “honest” way to go (give or take 1040 % – varying mark ups)… but the secondary market… THEY are the “flippers” (we all know what they ARE & how we feel about them!). Ultimately, in an ideal world, there would be no secondary market,. Those of us who purchase the product would do so out of love & enjoyment.

    How do you stop the “flippers”?… Well stop buying form them. If you stop feeding the beast – it will die. As an educated consumer of any taste & intelligence, you know retail vs. practical vs. ludicrous price gouging..

    The most serious issue begins when the Retailers surpass the secondary market (see below) and truly begin to harm the idea & name of the product.

    Now I get that there are several fine examples of the Buffalo Trace products on the shelves year round (I enjoy ALL of them). But come the fall, we consumers look forward to the special releases. Some even save all year to obtain them (like Me), but when I walk into a shop to try & purchase these special releases, how do you think I feel when I’m confronted with the prices listed below?

    Surprised? Disappointed? Insulted?

    These are prices well outside the realm of the average bourbon enthusiast. We save all year hoping to afford a Pappy (any of them) & the retailer just makes them unreasonable & out of reach. If we do purchase them – (usually on a credit card), we’re afraid to drink them – which leads to the same issue of not being able to afford them. Why spend the money if we can’t use the product?

    The retailer is hoping for that “BIG HIT” – but that’s not how you run a successful business. You cultivate a following by being honest.

    Charging so far above retail is NOT, IN ANY WAY shape or form – Honest.

    Just trying to be part of the solution.

    I think it’s important to remember these retailers are over charging for a “luxury” product not water during a drought. Is it ridiculous that they charge 400% retail? Yes. But, that’s also the reason you see them on the shelf. If they weren’t ridiculously priced they would be gone. I know some retailers that do this just because they want them as displays and have no intentions of selling. It’s their product and they can do what they want with it. That doesn’t mean that I have to buy from them

    Blake – I appreciate the article; the more we get the word out and consumers educated the better. There is nothing wrong with a producer selling a sourced whiskey, they just need to properly disclose this.

    I found it pretty sad that 10 labels screwed up the government warning. That’s pretty much boiler-plate copy and paste. Sad on the producer to blow that and sad the TTB doesn’t check everything.

    I want the producer/bottler to still have ultimate responsibility for the labels, not the TTB. No nanny state – here are the laws, follow them.
    * Fix 1 – Get clear and concise rules/regs on labeling
    * Fix 2 – require the producer to submit a label and a plain text file version of everything on the label with required elements clearly noted in the text file version (Brand name, Type, Age statement, Government warning, Recycling Info, Marketing bullshit, errr, Useful brand information, etc)
    * Fix 3 – Allow public to easily file complaints for any deficient labels
    * Fix 4 – Require public disclosure of all labels found deficient in both an immediate, detailed format plus a periodic summary (semi-annually or annually) breaking down by type and producer.
    * Fix 5 – While minor errors will result in warnings, repeated minor errors or egregious or deliberate errors will result in escalating fines and potentially mandatory re-labeling of existing stock. That last penalty alone should scare the heck out of anyone wanting to play fast and loose. All penalties will also be made public and summarized.

    So make it easier to understand the rules, make it easier to check, make it easier to report problems, make it easier for consumers to know what problems have been found, allow minor errors to be corrected without penalty but allow penalties for repeated or significant problems. The relabeling of existing stock is basically a “death penalty” – distributors and stores would not want to deal with that and will pressure on producers to make sure labels are good.

    Amen and Hallelujah, Blake, to your missive on the decline of the Bourbon Empire in search of the holy top dollar in the face of increased demand. I note that a lot of Mr. Woodard’s non-compliant (or should I say “pliable”) labels are not that well known to me in this part of the world (W. PA), other than Jefferson Reserve. I just found a not quite one year-old post in another blog –also bemoaning the careful choice of legalese on distillers’ websites regarding the sourcing of their product and their apparent bending of the TTB rules–requiring that if is sourced that it state the State of distillation. This blogger makes some pretty good points on how to uncover any chicanery regarding sourcing. For the entire story, see: . Keep up the great work, Blake!

    More than anything age statement should always be up front and honest. Whether it’s a straight bourbon or a blended batch. The industry has more than regulated itself in the past and done a pretty good job for the most part. It’s only now that the “Boom” has begun that this is really a issue, the real bourbonrs are getting the proverbial cold shoulder. Due to a rush to market to fill the cups of the hipsters and foriegn markets the big boys have been trying to tap for years. Drink what you know and be very wary of the rest.

    The biggest red flag in the statistics was the significant decline in the number of bottles the TTB selected to review. It collapses from 337 to 190 in four years. This is troubling, and appears to be indicative of not having appropriate resources (either through constraint or lack of will) dedicated to this function. This raises the possibility they no longer are getting appropriate representation of the products on shelves due to small sample size, and also means more product is simply never reviewed, and thus it is easier to bank on the fact your product will simply never receive scrutiny as a producer.

    Also note the errors of compliance stay approximately the same, showing a large growth in % of errors, which means non-compliance is on the rise.

    The thing I’m left wondering, after reviewing this info, is what can we, as consumers/citizens/etc., do to lobby for more resources and/or whatever else is necessary for the TTB to do their job well?

    After reading this and many other social posts on the topic, I have to wonder to myself whether Wade Woodard is a real person or just an astroturfing meme created to stir the pot for the benefit of Big Whiskey. If he is a real person he is most definitely being paid to crusade against small business owners in Texas who are stealing market share from the coffers of Kentucky big business.

    The bottom line is as the third biggest spirit market in the U.S.; Texas distillers are a serious threat to Kentucky’s pockets and the two “laws” Wade fights for are directly related to the two advantages that Kentucky whiskey makers have.

    No Texas I know would ever sick federal agencies on other Texans. It’s just not in our DNA. And the very plain and simple fact that all of these labels are already federally approved makes this contrived controversy a real head scratcher.

    Quite simply Chuck Cowdery, Wade Woodard and the other wholly made up sockpuppets are part of the marketing arm of big business interests outside of Texas.

    Do yourselves a favor and look up “astroturfing” and compare what you read to the tactics this so called Texan uses while he trolls social media and lashes out at regular folks trying to enjoy a taste of whiskey.

    These are the same tactics that Big Tobacco used from 1994-1999 to “initiate an aggressive public relations campaign to exaggerate the appearance of grassroots support for smoker’s rights”.

    It’s un-American and severely un-Texan. This practice needs to be called out for what it is.

    I’ve talked to him and can verify his “realness”

    I think you may be missing the point of what he’s saying. Wanting brands and distillers to follow regulations has nothing to do with Texas or being a part of a big distiller conspiracy. There are just as many Kentucky brands as there are Texas brands. The consumer wants the truth. Just because something is approved doesn’t make it correct. I’ll go back to the tax return example. Just because your return is filed and you received your refund doesn’t mean that it was done correctly.

    One final thought. Which is more Un-Texan? What Wade is doing or Calling something Texas Whiskey that’s from Kentucky or Indiana? Please reference this

    Can you confirm that you, Wade, and Chuck Cowdery are not paid in some way by whiskey interests outside of Texas?

    Also using the term “conspiracy” to disqualify an honest opinion is a textbook astroturfing tactic. So is muddying the waters with non-relevant comparisons like your tax example. How many tax returns compared to cola label permits do the authorities have to sift through every year? Apples and oranges.

    The answer to your question about what is more un-Texan, as proven by the massive sales totals of Firestone and Robertson’s TX whiskey is clear. What Wade is doing is the exact opposite of what it means to be a Texan. If the labels in question were falsely claiming distillation in Texas, then y’all would have a case. But they aren’t. Allowing folks to freely make up their own mind as to how they decide to spend their money is in the DNA of every Texan. Wade should try it on sometime. It feels nice.

    I can confirm myself as not getting paid. Not sure what kind of confirmation you’re looking for though.

    I’m still unsure as to what you’re fighting here? We’re pushing for brands to follow the regulations as laid out by the TTB. There’s plenty of examples where this is not the case. Labels are required to have “distilled in:” on the label and any omission, whether on purpose or not, is wrong.

    James – I’m a real person and a Texan. I’ve never been paid one cent for my involvement in this issue. I’m a strong supporter of many Texas craft distillers that are properly following the law such as Garrison Brothers, Railean Rum, and Ranger Creek. I’m an enthusiast member of the Texas Distilled Spirits Association – As matter of fact if you want to discuss this person, I’m attending this event on Saturday - It’s the kickoff event to the annual meeting of (ACSA) By the way, here is their code of ethics for members – “We operate in an honest, transparent and non-deceptive fashion. We inform consumers truthfully and accurately about the sources and methods used to make our spirits through our labels, materials and communications. We expect fair dealing and respect amongst members. We obey all federal, state, and local laws.” Any company that complies with that will have my support.

    No, I’m not a distiller nor work at all in the spirits/alcohol field. I joined as enthusiast member, which per their website is for “Designed for individuals with a strong interest in the Texas craft spirits community and want to support locally made spirits.”.

    Regarding Firestone & Roberston, their TX whiskey is not a bourbon, it’s a blended whiskey and 5.36 (d) law does not apply to blends. In person and when asked they are very honest that it is a sourced product. They are making bourbon, grain to glass in Texas, and it’s still aging. I had the pleasure to meet their head distiller, Rob Arnold, and he gave me a tour. We sampled some of their bourbon right out of the barrel and I thought it was fantastic, look forward to when they bottle and sale this.

    You sound like a sensible guy, so I would appeal to your Texan blood to give some people a break. If you suspect a big business marketing company of cashing in on the Texas brand, then I along with you, will crusade to get them out of Texas, but most of these guys are hard working Texans trying to build a business. Because as Balcones has shown, even distilling in Texas does not disqualify some of using some very non-Texan practices, such as driving a visionary out of his own company. As a Texan, I take issue with your carpetbagger tactics and would ask you to use “in house” means to settle any dispute you may have. Sicking the Washington dogs on them is not what makes this the great state it is. -James

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