A summary of the relevant regulations (with citations) follows.
GRAIN NEUTRAL SPIRIT
Neutral spirits are distilled spirits produced from any material that come off the still at at least 190 proof and are bottled at greater than or equal to 80 proof. This provides the ceiling for what can be considered "whiskey," because any spirit (no matter the mash bill) distilled at or above 190 proof cannot be considered whiskey, even if aged in new charred own barrels. Good examples of liquors derived from neutral spirits are vodka and gin. (27 CFR §5.22(a))
The following types of whiskey do not contain any grain neutral spirit.
Whiskey is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190 proof, stored in oak containers and bottled at greater than or equal to 80 proof. Corn whiskey is exempt from the requirement that it be stored in oak containers. In addition, the distillate must possess the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey. (27 CFR §5.22(b))
Importantly, even if a product fulfills the requirements of one of the more specific types below, the product may still be marketed as "whiskey." For example, Jack Daniel's markets itself as "Tennessee Whiskey," even though it meets all the requirements for straight bourbon whiskey. Further, Early Times (also a Brown-Forman product) is marketed as "Kentucky Whiskey" in the U.S., even though it meets all the requirements for "blended bourbon whiskey."
References to the word "whiskey" below are with reference to this definition.
Bourbon, Rye & Corn Whiskey
Bourbon, rye, wheat, malt and rye malt whiskey is a whiskey produced from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn, rye wheat, malt or rye malt, respectively. The whiskey cannot be distilled above 160 proof, must be barreled at no greater than 125 proof and must be aged in new charred oak barrels. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(i))
"Corn whiskey" is whiskey produced from a fermented mash of at least 80% corn. The whiskey cannot be distilled above 160 proof. If the whiskey is barreled, if cannot be barreled at more than 125 proof and must be aged in used or uncharred new oak barrels. It cannot be subjected to charred wood. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(ii))
Any of the above whiskies may be mixed with whiskey of the same type. For example, a mixture of bourbon with a mash bill of 78% corn, 12% rye and 10% malt (e.g. Wild Turkey) and bourbon with a mash bill of 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malt (i.e., OES_ Four Roses) is still considered "bourbon." (27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(i), (ii))
Any of the above types of whiskey that have been aged for at least two years are further designated "straight." For example, "straight bourbon whiskey" or "straight rye whiskey." (27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(iii))
Whiskey that is not 51% of any type of grain, but has come off the still at no more than 160 proof, entered the barrel at no more than 125 and been aged for more than two years in new charred oak barrels is simply "straight whiskey." While in the case of straight bourbon or straight rye, the appendage of the term "straight" simply signals that the bourbon or rye is over two years old, in the case of straight whiskey the term "straight" not only means that the whiskey has been aged for two years, but also means that they whiskey is in compliance with the aging and lower distillation and barreling proof requirements for bourbon. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(iii))
A whiskey is still designated "straight" if it is a mixture of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same state. For example, a mixture of straight rye whiskey produced in Kentucky (i.e. Rittenhouse) and a straight rye whiskey produced in Indiana (i.e. George Dickel Rye) would not be considered a straight rye whiskey. A mixture of two straight rye whiskies produced in Pennsylvania, however, would be considered a straight rye whiskey. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(iii))
A whiskey designated "straight" may not contain any harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials. (27 CFR §5.23(a)(3)(iii))
Whiskey Distilled from Bourbon
A whiskey that is distilled no higher than 160 proof from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn, rye, wheat, malted barley or malted rye, but that is aged in used oak barrels, is "whiskey distilled from bourbon, rye, wheat, malted barely or malted rye," respectively. Corn whiskey may not be labeled "whiskey distilled from bourbon." Any of the above types of whiskey may be mixed with whiskey of the same type. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(2))
"Light whiskey" is whiskey distilled higher than 160 proof that is aged in used or uncharred new oak containers. A mixture of light whiskies is still considered "light whiskey." If light whiskey is mixed with less than 20% of a straight whiskey it is "blended light whiskey" or "light whiskey - a blend." (27 CFR §5.22(b)(3))
The table below breaks down the key characteristics of each type (in order of distillation proof):
|Type||Mash Bill||Distillation Proof||Barrel Entry Proof||Type of Oak Barrel|
|Grain Spirit||Any||≥190||N/A||No Barrel Aging|
|Whiskey||Any Grain||<190||None||Any Type|
|Light Whiskey||Any Grain||>160||None||New Uncharred or Used|
|Bourbon / Rye Whiskey||≥51% Named Grain||≤160||≤125||New Charred|
|Corn Whiskey||≥80% Corn||≤160||≤125 (if barreled)||New Uncharred or Used (if barreled)|
|Whiskey distilled from Bourbon / Rye||≥51% Named Grain||≤160||None||Used|
WHISKEY CONTAINING GRAIN NEUTRAL SPIRITS
The following types of whiskey contain some amount of grain neutral spirit.
"Blended whiskey" or "whiskey - a blend" is a mixture of whiskies that contains at least 20% straight whiskey. The other 80% may be whiskey or neutral spirits. Blended whiskey may contain harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(4))
Blended whiskey that contains at least 51% of one of the types of straight whisky will be further designated based on that type. For example, blended whiskey made of 51% straight bourbon whiskey is "blended bourbon whiskey." (27 CFR §5.22(b)(4))
A Blend of Straight Whiskies
"A blend of straight whiskies" is a mixture of straight whiskies that do not otherwise conform to the standard for straight whiskey. For example, a blend of 50% straight bourbon whiskey and 50% straight rye whiskey (i.e. High West's Bourye) would be considered a blend of straight whiskies. In addition, a blend of straight whiskies may contain harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(5)(i))
A blend of straight whiskies that consists entirely of a single type of straight whiskey, but does not conform to the standards for such straight whiskey (i.e., coloring has been added or the whiskies were produced in different states), is further designated by the specific type of straight whiskey. For example, a mixture of straight rye whiskey produced in Kentucky and a straight rye whiskey produced in Indiana would not be considered a straight rye whiskey, but would be considered "blended straight rye whisky" or "a blend of straight rye whiskies." Further, a mixture of two straight rye whiskies produced in Pennsylvania to which coloring had been added would not be considered a straight rye whiskey, but would be blended straight rye whiskey. (27 CFR §5.22(b)(5)(ii))
The harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials do not include neutral spirits. For example, a mixture of 49% straight rye whiskey, 49% straight bourbon whiskey and 2% neutral spirit is not a "blend of straight whiskies." Instead, such mixture would be considered merely "blended whiskey." (27 CFR §5.22(b)(5)(iii))
"Spirit Whiskey" is a mixture of whiskey and grain neutral spirit. Spirit whiskey must contain at least 5%, but no more than 20%, whiskey.
|Type||Percent Straight Whiskey||Non-Straight Whiskey Portion||Versus Straight Whiskey|
|Spirit Whiskey||5-20%||Neutral Spirit||Contains Neutral Spirits|
|Blended Whiskey||>20%||Whiskey or Neutral Spirit||Contains Whiskey or Neutral Spirits|
|Blended Bourbon/Rye Whiskey||≥51% of named type||Whiskey or Neutral Spirit||Contains Whiskey or Neutral Spirits|
|Blend of Straight Whiskies||100%||N/A (100% Straight Whiskey)||Contains two types of straight whiskey|
|Blended Straight Bourbon/Rye Whiskey||100% of named type||N/A (100% Straight Whiskey)||Whiskey distilled in different states or contains harmless coloring or other additives|
ADDITIVES & EXTRACTIONS
Additional harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials may not be added to any type of whiskey unless specifically provided for in the definition. Examples of harmless coloring, flavoring and blending materials are caramel, straight malt or straight rye malt whiskies, fruit juices, sugar, infusion of oak chips and, in some cases, wine. Among the various types of whiskies, only whiskey (e.g., Scotch Whisky) and blended whiskey may contain such harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials. Conversely, no additives may be added to any straight whiskey. Additives, where allowed, must make up no more than 2.5% of the finished product. (27 CFR §5.23(a))
Similarly, nothing may be removed from whiskey to such an extent that the whiskey no longer possess the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to the type of whiskey. In the case of straight whiskey, removal of more than 15% of the fixed acids, volatile acids, esters, soluble solids or high alcohols, or more than 25% of the soluble color is deemed to alter the class or type thereof. For example, the common practice of charcoal filtering and chill filtering bourbon prior to bottling does not remove enough from a straight bourbon to run afoul of this rule. (27 CFR §5.23(b))
Geographic names may only be used if the whiskey has actually been produced in the particular place or region indicated in the name. For example, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey must be made in Tennessee. (27 CFR §5.22(k)(3))
ON THE LABEL
Under 27 CFR §5.32, the label of each bottle of whiskey must contain certain information.
The front label must contain: (i) the brand name, (ii) whether it is bourbon, rye, corn, blended or light whiskey and whether it is a straight (i.e., class and type), and (iii) percent alcohol. The statement of class and type must be equally conspicuous and appear together on the label (27 CFR §5.33(a)(4)).
The following items may appear on either the front or back label: (i) the producer's name and address, (ii) percentage of neutral spirit, (iii) statement of age, if required, (iv) state of distillation except in the case of light and blended whiskey.
Percent neutral spirit requires that the producer list the percent of neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) that has been added to the whiskey. For example, the label of Seagram's Seven Crown states that it contains 75% neutral spirit. A statement of age is only required if a whiskey is under four years old.