Taking Back Bourbon Labels

There’s been controversy in the bourbon world over the last few years in regards to labels. While new customers enter so do new brands. The problem is not all the brands follow the rules for labeling their whiskey. The organization in charge of these matters is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

Labeling regulations isn’t a new problem. We’ve been talking about it on Bourbonr for a while. What’s new is the TTB opening up the conversation with consumers. In an article on Eater last week, Jake Emen got the conversation started. He included the eight major issues he’d like to see fixed. The following day a thread popped up in the Bourbon section of Reddit. Both are full of great points and worth the read. Now is the time for a change. The TTB appears motivated for a change and is listening to consumers. Here are the issues that I see as most important.

  • Clearing labeling the distillery that made the whiskey.
    • With more NDP’s popping up this is one of the biggest issues. We want to know who made the whiskey. It shouldn’t take a private detective to figure out where it was made.
    • Adding the distillery could cause a problem with brands that claim they’ve signed an NDA. I have a feeling that’s more of a cop out than reality. In these cases, city and state would be required.
  • Disclosure of flavoring.
    • Flavoring isn’t an issue with bourbon. But, there are certain ryes and American Whiskey’s that use flavoring without disclosing it to the customer. I think it’s OK  to keep the rule that allows <2% flavoring in whiskey, but that needs to be stated on the bottle. Brands that use finishing barrels wouldn’t be classified as flavoring.
  • Define Small Batch and Single Barrel.
    • Small batch should mean batched in less than “X” gallons (somewhere around 5,300 gallons). Not its current definition of 1 to infinity. Also, a single barrel is the whiskey from a single barrel. Not a “single barrels worth” or “single barrel profile”. Yes, there will be some flavor profile variations, but that’s what we want.
  • Age statement on whiskey younger than four years.
    • This is currently a rule. I added it here because it’s often ignored. An age statement from younger whiskey will be huge for consumers.
  • Define “Craft Distillery”
    • This is probably the hardest issue the TTB faces. Should “Craft” be limited to distilleries that produce under a certain number of barrels per year? Should it be based on the size of the still used to produce the whiskey? What about Jim Beams Signature Craft series? Would they automatically be forced to drop the word?
    • I believe there should be a “Craft Distiller” category based on the number of barrels produced each year. This seems to work for the beer industry. The only problem is barrel size varies in distilleries.
  • What would you add?

Why is this important? As bourbon and whiskey grow the regulations need to expand with it. The issues the TTB faced six years ago are much different than today’s problems.  Craft distilleries are popping up across the countries. New brands are created weekly. In general, today’s consumer care a lot more about the information on the label than they did a decade ago. Today, we want to read about mash bills and distilleries. Not stories and family history. That is why label regulation is so important.

Here’s my plan. There are a little over 27,000 Bourbonr readers. I plan on putting together a list of changes and submit them to the TTB on behalf of all Bourbonr readers. Think of this as our “Bourbon Petition” and we need everyone to sign. The guys over at /r/bourbon are doing the same thing. The louder the bourbon voice is the more the TTB will listen. Please add your suggestions and commentary in comments.


    Totally concur- would greatly enhance consumer information and education of products. Also allow a somewhat improved knowledge for accurate bourbon comparisons, rather than relying on the arbitrary shelf placement of store to gauge new and unique products.

    An NDA (non-disclosure agreement) is superseded by the law, so if the TTB requires disclosure of the distillery, the marketing entity can’t be held liable for disclosing this information.

    I can think of an awful lot of information bourbon enthusiasts would want (barrel age for each barrel or batch of barrels used, barrel placement in the rickhouse, distiller notes – basically the kind of information you can find on the Booker’s web site for each release) that would be of no interest to the casual drinker and take up way more real estate than would be available. How about using a QR code? It would be a good way for companies to get a lot of information out without sacrificing label space and too much in the way of aesthetics.

    I think all bottles should have an age statement, period, and in the cases where the batch is a mix of variously aged barrels, the %ages of each should be disclosed. Or alternatively, “no less than” Age Statements.

    Agreed. Bookers uses the age of the youngest barrel as the age that gets printed on the label. But there are many barrels of many different ages. I dont need to know all of them but the average even is great info. Its not like I dont buy a Bookers if it says 6yr 4 months instead of 7yr 4 months. Its still gonna be a similar profile and delicious.

    This is an excellent proposal. And long overdue. It’s likely a long-standing ignorance on the part of previous generation whiskey consumers that has allowed producers to get away with such vague and misleading labeling. However, most modern whiskey enthusiasts are not ignorant and deeply care about factual full disclosure. Sadly, producers are still relying on consumer ignorance (or at least apathy) to these details and so exploit every marketing loophole they can get away with. I highly support this petition and look forward to reading about future developments.

    I agree. Make the labels provide information such as single barrel, flavor added and distillery so the drinker may make an informed decision on which bourbon he/she would like to purchase.

    I really wish NDP’s would list source and/or distillation date. One popular NDP did this at one time, making it easier to bourbon hunt within the brand, or across the market.

    I’m don’t see how a deliberate attempt to obfuscate source benefits producer or NDP (unless an NDP royally screws up, it could negatively affect the producers brand(s)).

    NDPs like Willett and Jefferson’s like hiding the source of their supply, because it makes it harder to compare with other products. The NAS Black Maple Hill was essentially Evan Williams Black Label at 95 proof instead of 86. Some people may decide that it’s worth paying more than 3x for the BMH, but I bet a lot more people would have passed on it.
    The producers don’t care, except maybe Makers and Wild Turkey, who have a policy of not selling in bulk. The truth is, when an NDP says they are prevented by NDAs from disclosing the source of their juice, they are hiding the fact that the NDP is the one that demanded and NDA in the first place.

    Craft is the wrong term for small distilleries. It tends to mean large distilleries do not “craft” their whiskey. Craft insinuates the small distiller is doing something that large distillers do not. I would recommend micro-distiller.

    Things I would like to see:
    1. Disclosure of added coloring (not a problem in bourbon, as it’s not allowed, but other whiskies…)
    2. Disclosure of filtration used, if any
    3. Age statements on everything! If it’s a blend, use the youngest age in the blend, no matter how small.

    Really, we shouldn’t have to make these things laws in order to see them happen. I know if I owned a distillery, I would include ALL information (mashbill, type of barrel/finishing, type of still, age, coloring, filtration, # of barrels/bottles, warehouse storage, etc…). The consumer wants transparency, and there’s no reason not to give it to us if you don’t have anything to hide.

    I agree with most of your list but would add an additional requirement to two of your points.
    All single barrel Bourbon (and bottled in Bond as well) would require an age statement.
    All Bourbon under 6 years would require an age statement.

    The Mexican CRT has a good framework for distillery licensing. Each has an identifying number, known as a NOM, and everything that comes from that distillery must show that NOM number on the bottle. It does not matter if the spirit is sold under a different label or brand or even if it was made under contract for a third party. NOM numbers are not reused so a bottle of Tequila manufactured 20 years ago can be easily identified.

    This is all handled by labeling regulations so it is not a significant hardship.

    Agree with the definition of small, single, and other marketing based ‘special batch’ efforts to distract the consumer. Also agree on the age under 4 or 6 years, mash ill and percent blend comments and I’d like to add the parent company/distiller as a component to inform the customer.

    All bottles should have an age statement…and the whole craft or even micro-distiller label is decidedly uninformative, though it does serve as an effective marketing tool to the undecided and the uninformed

    A link to a website on the label that allows interested customers to gain more detailed information; bottling date, mash bill, location of rickhouse, aging details,etc. This should not be a legal requirement, but would be a nice extra for bourbo-philes. I’m a newbie with much to learn!

    Good list of requested changes.

    A few thoughts from a long time bourbon drinker:
    1. Stating the state of distillation, and possibly the city, should be sufficient. Requiring the distiller name is going overboard – as you mention NDA’s do exist and must be abided by. Seeing the state of Indiana on a bottle of bourbon which is “produced” in Colorado should be enough to alert any consumer that cares to read the label.
    2. Disclosure of flavoring – 100% agree
    3. Small batch and single barrel designation – 100% agree

    The problems with statements like “craft” and “handmade” is that they can mean so many different things. And some companies start in that vein, s do we penalize them when they have grown to a size where they no longer fit the definition we come up with?

    If craft is defined by the volume of product made by the organization, then that prohibits the Beam’s of the world from making “craft” products, some of which are quite good. And if limit craft to be X # of barrels made, then we cap the production level of a good product making it harder to find as the popularity grows – thus turning it into another Pappy that only a few people can get.

    As bourbon drinkers, we want the opposite. We want higher quantities of quality bourbon that we can enjoy at a reasonable price. Yes it is fun to have that hard to find or special bottle, but are you really spending $75 or more a bottle on a daily basis? Putting restrictions on production sizes causes limited availability and increased prices.

    Same with “Handcrafted” – what does that mean? Do the grains have to be milled by hand? Does the mash have to be stirred by hand then poured into the distiller by hand and the beer pumped by hand into the still? I think we would all agree that those requirements are ridiculous, but where is the line drawn? Trying to force a line int he sand on these definitions will cause a long debate that will inhibit any change in labeling from occurring.

    My main concerns are:
    1. they are honest about the production methods
    2. if a bourbon is made a certain way (call it craft or hand made) that as production grows the original method is maintained through the growth
    3. that the small quantity production (small batch and single barrel) variations are maintained and not homogenized and reduced to a marketing shtick.
    4. that required changes to labeling occurs in the near term

    So as you put your petitions and TTB submissions together, remember a couple of things:
    – consider the full ramifications of the actions you are requesting and understand that some of these will cause higher prices and limited availability of certain products
    – While we (educated bourbon drinkers) want mash bills vs family history, for companies to be successful they need to sell/market to the broader market place of millions of consumers and not the 22k readers of this blog
    – You should ask for what is realistic from a business perspective vs your specific nirvana of requests. If you ask for things that are unreasonable you will not be listened to – but if you present a reasonable set of requirements you may be taken seriously

    All levels of bourbons have their place. In my current “collection” of 28 different bourbons (plus rye, Tennessee, Scotch, Irish, Japanese, etc on top of that 28), I have products from across the range of consistent mass produced products, true small batch and single barrel selections with known mash bills, a few rare and hard to find (yes, even a Pappy 15 from when I could get it at a reasonable price), and some craft selections from larger distillers (such as B.T. Experimental selections). I like trying different bourbons and comparing the flavors. And almost any bourbon in my house is available for any of my guests – though you will have to prove to me that you are worthy of the Pappy 15, Hirsch 20, or Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel ’10/’12/’14 (like my SF Giants, I have a thing for even years).

    So let’s encourage variation and exploration without limiting the success of these options when we find one that truly is magical and more people want to taste it.

    I must admit my naivetee” regarding “flavorings” for bourbon/whisky/whiskey…
    Will someone please enlighten me regarding what is allowable “flavoring” in bourbon?
    I have been under the assumption over these past 4 decades of savoring sips of various corn “et al” recipes
    assuming that the various tastes were due to the respective mashbills along w/ grade of char in white oak barrels and the time/location of each barrel in the rickhouse. Hmmmm….?

    Flavoring is rather rare in US whiskey. Per law anything labeled “bourbon” cannot contain any additional flavor or color. “Straight bourbon” has the same rule, but is just aged 2 years or older. Rye (in the US, different in Canada) is the same set of rules as bourbon, but the mash bill is >50% rye instead of corn. The big difference is that plan ol’ US rye can contain a small amount of added coloring or flavoring (2%? 2.5%? I forget) and still be considered rye. “Striaght rye” is again like straight bourbon, aged 2 years but unlike plain rye, NO additives allowed. So if you buy straight rye or any bourbon you don’t have to worry about it. This is why Templeton Rye can’t be labeled as straight rye. They add things to it.

    We may make a bit of a stink about it, but it’s legal in Scotch, and hasn’t exactly killed that industry. But there too it is hotly debated whether it needs to be disclosed, and different countries have different laws. So a bottle of Scotch sold in the UK may say nothing, but in Sweden it discloses that caramel color was added for example.

    Personally, I’d love to see age statements required on all bourbons. As stated in the article, I don’t want to become an amateur sleuth to figure out what I’m drinking! I can’t think of any reason why a distiller would need to keep age statement a secret.

    I don’t have a problem with leaving this up to the distiller. If they want to put it on there as something that would entice me to buy it, good for them. But it can also become a substitute for allowing people to decide what is worth paying money for. NAS doesn’t really bother me. Look at Scotch, there are some amazing NAS Scotches out there, and the addition of the younger whisky can change the flavor for the better. It would negatively impact those bottles if they had to use the youngest age. Just don’t say at all and let taste be the judge.

    Now trying to mislead people into thinking that something is older than it is should not be allowed. But I don’t think consumers gain anything if we require people to put an age statement on there. I know young whiskey when I taste it, but just because something says it’s 10 or 12 or whatever years old doesn’t mean it’s better than something younger.

    I will grant that I’m in the minority here though.

    I would argue the provenance information seems more important to flippers than to actual drinkers. If I buy a bottle, I don’t really care who made it or where it came from. I just want to it taste good and interesting.

    Compare it to a book. We don’t regulate books to have on the labels where the book was written, restriction of an author using a pen name vs. their real name, whether the events in the book are fictional or real, because we don’t care as long as the book is a good book. I think the true should be of bourbon.

    Open it up, drink it. If you like it great, if you don’t, just don’t buy it anymore and share your opinions with your peers. The rest is really immaterial IMO.

    I like your thinking…..there should be some regs that are followed by all, but my tastebuds are my own….as our my choices….I gather the information that feels good to me, then I buy and pour…sometimes it’s the best other times not so much, but usually I’m not disappointed ….for me it’s always buyer beware…do your research, then dive in after all that’s the fun of the process.

    As a drinker, I like knowing where my bourbon was made. Your analogy of a book is a poor one. Authors generally don’t actively try to hide who wrote a book. Knowing who a book was written by tells you a lot about whether you will like it or not. The same is true of bourbon. I know that I don’t care for the peanut flavor I get from Beam products, so I know that when they come out with a new brand, I don’t need to try it. If there was no way of knowing if a brand was from Beam, then I wouldn’t know to avoid it. Maybe you don’t care about who made your bourbon, but if I like something (or dislike it) I want to know the source, so that I can try more of their stuff (or avoid it).
    As an aside, why does it matter whether “flippers” care more about provenance than “actual drinkers?” Who gets to decide which consumer is what, and their relative importance?

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I would support adding a minimum age to call a product ‘whiskey’. Every other major whiskey producing nation requires everything in the bottle to be over 2 or 3 years age to qualify as ‘whisk(e)y’. Out regs just say ‘aged’, so we get ‘1 hour in a neutral barrel’ products that may be good, but aren’t really whiskey.

    Would this be hard on the startups? Certainly in the short term, but who ever said this was easy?

    Honestly, your list seems good.

    One thing I would like to see that goes beyond labeling is a minimum age like the rest of the world has for calling something “whiskey.” I’d adjust the three year minimum of the EU and Canada to two years so that it follows the definition of Straight. I’m sick of things aged “at least 3 months” being able to call themselves bourbon.

    My primary concern is with what Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey should be. Since we are spit-balling here, I’d suggest the following in order to be called KSBW:
    1. Must be distilled in Kentucky
    2. Must be matured in Kentucky for its entire life
    3. Must be bottled in Kentucky
    4. Must contain the Distillery Producer
    5. Must contain distillation month and year, barrel entry month and year, barrel dump month and year and bottling month and year.
    All other current requirements to remain intact with regard to mashbill and minimum maturation time.

    I would then provide for a new classification of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that would be called Sourced Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The requirement of the term “Sourced” would indicate that the whiskey meets all the above conditions, but may have been bottled outside of Kentucky and additionally matured outside Kentucky. If the NDP chooses not to disclose all information with regard to provenance, they must drop the term “Straight” from their labeling, but must still include the term “Sourced” in the label.

    In short, this would place the emphasis on “Straight and Sourced” as descriptors while still allowing for disclosure options to be used with discretion by the companies involved.

    The term “small batch” must be better defined and regulated. Be it 500 barrels or 1000 set a standard. Also those barrels must have the same mash bill and matured at the same time or placed in the rickhouse within a 30 to 60 day window and be placed in the same rickhouse and same location and if rotated, done at the same time and within the same area of the rickhouse as all the other barrels.

    Make the term “small batch” mean something.
    Not sure how to police terms like “craft” and “handmade”. Those mean nothing to how the whiskey is actually made and just “fluff” for advertising but state that such terms mean nothing special

    I’ll add that “small batch” needs to be defined and terms like craft explained because distillers/bottlers are asking for a premium for such whiskeys. Without regulating those terms sellers/manufacturers are just fleecing customers. Many know it and are trying to get away with it laughing all the way to the bank.

    Also if there is no age statement and listed as bonded, a regulated term with minimum and defined requirements, then a range of ages should be listed somewhere on the bottle.

    I agree with much that has been said – I am a fan of more information and less deception in labeling. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is the year the bourbon was bottled. This matters to me because bourbon from the smaller distilleries seems to vary year-to-year and the larger ones even have some variance as well. I think it would make collecting more fun and interesting to look for years as well as labels. If nothing else, we can all probably agree that many brands have clearly gone down in quality as they have tried to increase production over the past several years.

    Good idea!
    Labeling the distillery of origin, disclosure of flavorings, and age statement are the most important to me. Definitions for Craft, Small batch, and the like are likely to take a while, so I wouldn’t want the others held up right now to get them all in at once. Just getting those first three in would be a really big improvement.

    I recently found Kirkland’s bourbon (costco) had changed (california) the new bottle says Tennessee bourbon? I don’t believe this is a TTB issue? Or maybe it is? It for sure breaks the rule of bourbon being made in kentucky, what say u?

    Too much shenanigans for my comfort level. Some actual bottling and labeling RULES would be refreshing. Touring a famous red top distillery, they proudly proclaimed they did not care about the age, it was only the “taste” that told them when it could be bottled. Then they mixed it into a giant bin with other “taste” approved barrels, filtered and then watered it down. If that wasn’t enough, they then started cutting it lower than 80 proof. because they said it “tastes” the same. All the while claiming they were running out of the stuff to put in red top bottles.
    For a kicker, there is/was company with a bottle label, “Kentucky Bourbon, from Cleveland”.
    Help us!!!

    I’ll throw a voice of dissent out here, and think that this is all regulating things too much in a way that benefits consumers very little.

    “Clearing labeling the distillery that made the whiskey.”
    I am generally behind this one. All it needs is a little “distilled by XXX distillery, City, State” on the back of the bottle. But how far down the rabbit hole do we want to go here? When a NDP blends theoretically 3, or 4, or 5 whiskies do they all have to go on the label? Look at blended Scotch. If it comes from 20 different distilleries does the consumer benefit knowing where each percentage of that bland comes from? Not really. You know you like Johnny Walker Blue but not Black. The core issue to me is deception. If I say I am selling you a blend of various whiskies I’ve procured, in a combination that I determined was the best, that should be sufficient. Now if I say that I found ancient stocks of my granpappy’s Rye in a forgotten warehouse and now I’m selling it to you… but it’s really just MGP rye, that’s a different issue. American whiskey has for far too long relied on stories and less on what’s in the bottle to sell the stuff. I think it should be required to say if you distilled this yourself, or if you got it from someone else.

    “Disclosure of flavoring.”
    Sure. That’d be nice to know. I don’t think we need to know what, and it should be <2.5%.

    "Define Small Batch and Single Barrel."
    Single barrel should mean the contents of one barrel. Defining "small batch" is trickier. That seems like a judgement call to me. Small is relative. If I'm a new producer my batches may be everything I've distilled that year lumped together. Size-wise that's smaller than a giant like Buffalo Trace pulling together a few dozen barrels with similar qualities and calling it a small batch. It's a marketing term more than anything, but is that inherently bad? Isn't it OK to have some marketing terms? I don't lose any sleep over this, and despite the fact that William Larue Weller does not say "small batch" anywhere on the label I know it's a wee bit limited in production.

    "Age statement on whiskey younger than four years…. An age statement from younger whiskey will be huge for consumers."
    Huge? Again are we buying the bottle or the juice inside? If it's young and tastes like rubbing alcohol, that word is going to get out pretty quickly. I'd much rather know what year it was bottled. Coming from some exposure to wine it was weird to me that spirits don't tell you this, except the highest of the high end. But if we think that newer ____ is not as good as older ____ it would be nice to be able to prove it. This is most relevant in things that are meant to be different bottle to bottle or year to year. I'm looking at you Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, or Rare Breed Barrel Proof.

    Define “Craft Distillery”
    I don't care. Are we also going to regulate whether you can describe your whiskey as "excellent" or "lovingly made"? I think it's going too far to define every last term.

    TL;DR – let's not get carried away.
    Make the bottle say if the stuff inside is distilled by the person selling it, or if it's sourced.
    Tell us how old it is if you want to. If you don't, fine, but don't mention age at all in the label/marketing.
    Say what year it was bottled.

    I’m in, especially if we can convince people to stop using “hand-crafted.” I’ve been to several major distilleries. Nothing is hand-crafted.

    What about a distillery that knowingly uses false labels? I was at a distillery in Seattle, and the owner poured me a rye whiskey, but he said it was aged in a used bourbon barrel. Doesn’t rye require a new charred barrel? What can be done about people who don’t care to follow the rules?

    Personally myself as a Brand Ambassador, I can look at the bourbon and tell you if the age of the bourbon is older than 8-12 yrs. Ultimately,we know there will NEVER be 2 barrels that are exactly the same. The mash bill will be the recipe for the grain, I would like to know the recipe after it is put in the barrel/cask. And maybe even the location of its hibernation to determine the amount of times the barrels temperature fluctuates, if the barrel was roasted, toasted, or chard. I also believe that when it is aging in the barrel that is the same as putting a sauce on simmer…if the location that the cask or barrel is aging experiences major temperature changes year after year the proof is altered each time significantly taking the original recipe or mash bill and altering it. TTB labels are trying to hold Master Distiller to such a precise code or standards when in fact if it is TRUE bourbon then the proof is not hold true unless it is stored in a temperature controlled environment. Also for authenticity reasons I would enjoy reading my barrels passport if you will. Give the registered Master Distillers a signature branding stamp, to be stamped when filled or emptied that will be burned into the designated plank directly to the left of the opening that tells you the state, date, master Distillers signature or registered number. I feel like it would bring out a credit check type deal for barre;ls being auctioned and give buyers a hint of heritage and all the benefits of a authenticity. If you put those factors in the cask trading business the distributors become collectors.

    the higher up the pyramid the lazier the regulators get from my personal experience. Even the laws are lazy, they don’t give acountability to wrong doers because the lack of proof is too hard for them to trace.

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