Behind the Label tells the back stories of whisky, with a special focus on history and the scientific aspects that are often overlooked. If you have a suggestion for something you’d like us to dig into for Behind the Label, please use our contact form and let us know about it!
May 6, 2018 – Age statements can tell us how old a whisky is, and in some cases, how young it is.
Let’s start with the easy part. If a whisky has an age statement on it, it must refer to the age of the youngest whisky used in that bottle. In other words, all of the malt and grain whiskies used in a 12-year-old Blended Scotch whisky must be at least 12 years old. However, there is no requirement that a whisky carry an age statement – with one notable exception.
The United States requires that any American-made whiskey matured for less than four years disclose that fact with an age statement on the label. Again, the requirement stipulates that the disclosed age refers to the youngest whiskey in a particular bottle. However, age statements are completely optional for any whisky older than four years old. The law also requires that whiskey be matured in oak barrels, though the specifics vary depending on whether we’re talking about Bourbons, Rye Whiskies, Wheat Whiskies, and Malt Whiskies (which must be aged in new barrels) or other types of whiskies that can be aged in used barrels.
However, that law doesn’t say how long a distiller must mature spirit in a barrel in order to call it whisky in the U.S. Theoretically, one could fill a brand-new cask with spirit, dump it five minutes later, and legally call it Bourbon – assuming it met all of the other requirements. However, that’s far too inefficient and expensive, since Bourbon barrels can only be used once. It’s also a key reason why the U.S. has that age disclosure requirement in place for anything less than four years old, while almost every other country requires spirit to mature for at least three years before it can legally be called “whisky.” The U.S. does require that any “straight” whisky be matured for at least two years, while “bottled-in-bond” whiskies have to be at least four years old.
Where did those requirements come from, since early distillers weren’t known for their patience in waiting for their whisky to mature? In Scotland and Ireland, the first minimum aging requirement wasn’t imposed until 1915 with the United Kingdom’s Immature Spirits Act and its two-year minimum standard. It didn’t take Parliament that long to raise the bar, with a change to three years imposed a year later, according to Charles MacLean in MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky.
Canada beat the rest of the world to the punch in 1887, according to Davin de Kergommeaux in Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. At that time, Canadian law imposed a minimum of one year’s maturation time for whiskies – and it was doubled to two years in 1980. However, the current standard of three years was not enacted until 1974, meaning you might still find vintage bottles of Canadian Whisky that were made under the old requirements.
May 3, 2018 – The Mint Julep is as much a part of the Kentucky Derby as fancy hats and ripped-up betting slips, but many people associate the Derby’s official cocktail with the mass-produced stuff served in plastic cups to rowdy revelers in the Churchill Downs infield. The Mint Julep has a much more cultured origin dating back centuries, as Heaven Hill’s National Brand Educator Lynn House explains.
“The name julep is an adaptation of a Spanish Arabic word, julepe, which is actually an adaptation of an Arabic word, gholab, which literally meant “sweet rose water,” House says. The word julep means “sweetened drink,” and juleps were used for medicinal purposes by muddling herbs and leaves with spirits to create a tonic for stomach issues.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s conversation with Lynn House:
Kentucky’s Henry Clay gets much of the credit for bringing the Mint Julep out of Kentucky, according to House. When he left Kentucky for Washington to serve in the Senate in 1806, he took a Mint Julep recipe with him and made it popular in the nation’s capital. In 1938, the Mint Julep became the Kentucky Derby’s official cocktail.
Want a Mint Julep recipe? Lynn House shared hers with us.
April 29, 2018 – If you’ve ever thought of pickles when you’re nosing or tasting a rye whiskey, you’re not alone. Rye whiskies can often have a dill-like aroma or taste, and it’s often thought of as a characteristic of ryes. It’s created during the fermentation process because of bacteria that’s carried over from a previous fermenting run – either deliberately or because the fermenter wasn’t cleaned properly after the previous run. The bacteria creates lactic acid – the same chemical that builds up in your muscles as you exercise and leaves your body feeling fatigued. In a whisky, that lactic acid contributes to the dill-like aroma or flavor.
Why would a distiller deliberately add bacteria to a new fermenting run as it’s starting? That’s part of the “sour mash” method of making whisky, in which the distiller will save some of the fermented beer or “wash” before it goes into the still and add it to the next batch of wort to be fermented. The nearly-depleted yeast and bacteria in the “backset’ help kick-start fermentation into action in the next batch, helping to make it more efficient in creating alcohol.
However, not all whisky makers see dill as a desirable note in their rye whiskies. Dr . Don Livermore of Corby’s Hiram Walker Distillery explained it to us…
“Rye fermentations are very difficult to run; the fermenters are very difficult to clean. We take great care here to make sure everything is sterile – we want as clean fermentations as possible to make sure our whisky does not have that distinctive dill characteristic to it.”
Now, getting dill in a rye doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a fault. Dr. Livermore acknowledges that some people like that characteristic in their ryes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, each one of us has our own individual preferences.