January 20, 2015 – With a growing number of complaints over lax enforcement of labeling standards for US-made whiskies, the Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau has issued new guidelines that may help resolve at least one area of concern: age statements. The guidelines were quietly issued on December 29 at the TTB’s web site while many whisky industry leaders and consumers were in the middle of holiday celebrations.

While other countries only require that if used, an age statement must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used in a particular bottling, the US requires age statements on all whiskies matured for less than four years. The new guidelines do not change current federal regulations, but clarify what will and will not be acceptable on labels.

A Cleveland Whiskey age statement that would not comply with the TTB's updated labeling guidelines. Photo ©2015 by Mark Gillespie.

This Cleveland Whiskey age statement is an example of what will no longer be approved by the TTB.

For instance, whisky producers will no longer be allowed to describe a whisky as “aged less than four years” or similar language that gives a maximum age instead of a minimum age. In addition, whisky makers who choose to minimally mature their whiskies for a short period of time in oak barrels will have to be more specific about the practice on their labels:

“The age of the whisky must be stated in hours, days, months, or years, as appropriate. The age may be understated, but the age may not be overstated.”

Longtime whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery has been one of the most vocal critics of the TTB’s labeling oversight. Cowdery noted Monday on his blog that the new guidelines should bring an end to the “aged less than four years” age statements regularly approved by TTB officers in recent years.

“Those have always been the rules. This is, however, the TTB’s way of putting the industry on notice that its lax enforcement of these provisions is in the past. It remains to be seen if their bite matches their bark.”

It appears that existing labels that do not comply with the regulations will need to be updated. TTB spokesman Thomas Hogue told WhiskyCast in an email that “we will work directly with label holders to ensure that any labels that should comply with the requirements of the regulations do so.”  Hogue indicated that TTB staff will be reviewing current labels on file with the agency and contacting label holders if changes are needed. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information.

Links: Tax & Trade Bureau