Many of you will have read about the debate in Tennessee about the legal definition of Tennessee whisky. The “bourbon + charcoal filtration” definition was adopted as state law last year. Now Diageo – present in Tennessee with George Dickel – has tried to have the law changed in a way that would also allow used barrels to be used for maturation. But this attempt was not successful, the law remains unchanged.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the pros and cons of the used barrel issue here. Some have argued that it would ultimately compromise the overall quality of the whisky or even regard Diageo’s step as an attempt to damage the status of Jack Daniel’s as global competitor of Johnnie Walker. Others see this as no big deal at all.
It should be pointed out, though, that the current requirement for fresh barrels to be used for bourbon, rye and some other types of American whisky is a result ot successful lobbyism of the cooperage union after the end of prohibition. So it was essentialy forced upon the industry by external pressure, but it was soon embraced to such an extent that it is often regarded as essential for American whisky.
But in fact this is not the case. There have always been types of American whisky that could be made with used barrels: Corn whisky and “light whisky”. In the 1970s and 1980s when the US whisky industry was hit by a severe crisis, many producers embraced used barrels as a means of cutting costs and also attracting new customers with a lighter whisky style. As an example here is a 1971 advertisment for Barton’s QT that makes the use of used barrels a selling point. Another example is Early Times that switched to a mix of 80% fresh and 20% used barrels in 1983, thus deliberately dropping its “bourbon” status.
In America the maturation in used barrels has become eponymous with bottom shelf whisky because in most cases this is done to save on production costs. But used barrels don’t make worse whisky, it just takes longer until it is good; and fully matured American whiskies from used barrels are hard to find, if at all. This is definietly one reason why Diageo’s bid in Tennessee was seen as negative by many.
In Scotland things are entirely different. Scotch whisky has traditionally been matured in used casks, and especially bourbon casks take up the bulk of the space in Scotland’s whisky warehouses. But as we know, the Scottish distillers have been facing not a crisis, but the opposite. Growing global demand has put pressure on aged stocks, so the producers are forced to be creative in order be able to bring younger whisky to the market.
One of several options to do this is the use of fresh “virgin oak” casks which impart strong wood flavours to the whisky much faster than used casks. And it is no wonder that many of the recently released NAS expressions are relying on the effect of fresh casks at least to some extent. These casks are of course more expensive than used ones, but the shorter maturation time can offset this, at least partly. And the novelty aspect allows for higher prices and ultimately higher profits.
So on one hand we have American distillers trying to be more successful with used casks, and on the other hand their Scottish colleagues try to do the same by using fresh casks. The whisky business can be quite twisted indeed. The key to understanding this apparent paradox is the difference in problems faced.