American whiskey is a distilled beverage produced in the United States from a fermented mash of cereal grain.
The production and labeling of American whiskey are governed by Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.
Outside of the United States, various other countries recognize certain types of American whiskey, such as Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, as indigenous products of the United States that must be produced (although not necessarily bottled) in the United States. When sold in another country, American whiskey may also be required to conform to other local product requirements that apply to whiskey in general when sold in that country, which may in some aspects involve stricter standards than the U.S. law.
Canadian law also requires that products labeled as Bourbon or Tennessee Whiskey must satisfy the laws of the United States that regulate its manufacture "for consumption in the United States". Some other countries do not specify this requirement. This distinction can be important, as the U.S. regulations include substantial exemptions for products that are made for export rather than for consumption within the United States (C.F.R. Title 27, § 5, notably 5.2 and 5.3).
Some key types listed in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations are:
- Rye whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye.
- Rye malt whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye.
- Malt whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley.
- Wheat whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat.
- Bourbon whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize).
- Corn whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn (maize).
Unless the whiskey is labeled as blended, to be labeled as one of the types listed above, the whiskey must be distilled to not more than 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) to ensure that the flavor of the original mash is adequately retained, and the addition of coloring, caramel and flavoring additives is prohibited. All of these except corn whiskey must be aged (at least briefly, although no minimum aging period is specified) in charred new oak containers. These restrictions do not exist for some similarly named products in some other countries, such as Canada. American corn whiskey does not have to be aged at all – but, if it is aged, it must be aged in used or uncharred oak barrels. In practice, if corn whiskey is aged it usually is aged in used bourbon barrels.
Straight whiskey is whiskey that was distilled to not more than 80 percent alcohol by volume that has been aged for at least two years at a starting alcohol concentration of not more than 62.5% and has not been blended with any other spirits, colorings, or additives. A straight whiskey that also meets one of the other above definitions is referred to by combining the term "straight" with the term for the type of whisky. For example, a rye whiskey that meets this definition is called a "straight rye whiskey". Furthermore, a straight whiskey (or other spirit produced from a single class of materials) may be labelled as bottled in bond if it has been aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse, is bottled at 100 proof, and is the product of one distilling season.
Unqualified whiskey may be distilled to as much as 190 proof, must be stored in oak (for an unspecified time), bottled at not less than 80 proof, but may not state the grain on the label. This type of whiskey cannot be called straight.
Other types of American whiskey that are defined by federal regulations include the following:
- Blended whiskey, is a mixture which contains straight whiskey or a blend of straight whiskeys at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, and, separately or in combination, other whiskey or neutral spirits. The 80 percent of the content that is not straight whiskey may include un-aged grain distillates, grain neutral spirits, flavorings, and colorings.
- Light whiskey, which is produced in the United States at more than 80% alcohol by volume and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers.
- Spirit whiskey, which is a mixture of neutral spirits and at least 5% of certain stricter categories of whiskey.
However, it is important to note that these various labeling requirements and "standards of identity" do not apply to products for export from the U.S. (under C.F.R. Title 27, § 5.1). Thus, exported American whiskey may not meet the same labeling standards when sold in some markets.
Another important American whiskey labeling is Tennessee whiskey. There are only five brands of Tennessee whiskey that are currently bottled – Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, Benjamin Prichard's, Jailers, and Collier and McKeel. Four of the five brands of currently produced Tennessee whiskey use a production process that involves a filtering stage called the Lincoln County Process, in which the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before it is put into casks for aging. Tennessee whiskey is a recognized name defined under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), at least one other international trade agreement, and the law of Canada as a Straight Bourbon Whiskey lawfully produced in the state of Tennessee. Aside from the treaty definitions, Tennessee whiskey is not otherwise officially recognized as a type of whiskey in the U.S. federal regulations, and it has no other strict legal definition.
- "Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, Title 27 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 5.22". Retrieved 2008-10-17.
- "27 C.F.R. sec 5.22(b)(4)". Ecfr.gpoaccess.gov. Retrieved 2011-01-14.
- "27 C.F.R. sec 5.23". Ecfr.gpoaccess.gov. Retrieved 2011-01-20.
- Glossary of Bourbon & Whiskey terms page, Kentucky Distillers Association
- "27 C.F.R. sec 5.42(b)(3)". Ecfr.gpoaccess.gov. Retrieved 2013-03-25.
- Tennessee Spirits Company
- Collier and McKeel company web site.
- North American Free Trade Agreement Annex 313: Distinctive products
- SICE - Free Trade Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Chile, Section E, Article 3.15 "Distinctive products".
- Canada Food and Drug regulations, C.R.C. C.870, provision B.02.022.1