Taft Decision

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Taft Decision

Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Nov 11, 2004 2:50 pm

When the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act there was some confusion as to what was "Pure Food Whiskey". This was settled by the "Taft Decision" where President Taft helped set the standards for "Straight" and "Blended" Whiskey. I came across the following letter in the Augustus E. Willson collection here at the Filson. Willson was Govenor of Kentucky at the time.

"The White House
Washington
January 13, 1910

My dear Govenor Willson,
I have yours of January 8th and I am delighted to know that you approve of my opinion in the matter of whisky. It seems to me the proper solution, and yet there has been so much discussion and feeling about it that I am anxious to have the reasonableness of the opinion understood, and I am delighted to know that the Govenor of the State in which the matter is so important takes my view.
Sincerely yours,
Wm. H. Taft

Hon. Augustus E. Willson
Govenor of Kentucky"

Mike Veach
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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Nov 18, 2004 11:34 am

I guess this letter left you all speachless! I was actually pretty excited at finding this letter. I will discuss why now and see if that brings any response.

In 1903 the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. This set new standards for products and took a lot of dangerous products out of the market. The question was in 1904 is where did whiskey fall in this new law of the land? There were people that wanted only whiskey without any additives to be labeled as "Whiskey". Others fought to protect the products they were bottling and selling that did contain other ingredients for color and flavor. The debate got rather nasty and the distillers were fighting hard to make the rectifiers call their product something other than "whiskey". They calling these type of products "compound spirits" in polite company and "snake oil" or worse in other taverns and saloons. Both sides were labeling their products as "Pure Food Whiskey". The other side reminded everyone that not all rectifiers made an inferior product and that there were many whiskeys made without questionable additives.

In 1910 President Taft was called in to help settle the argument. He decided that both were whiskey but there should be label difference between the two products, thus the terms "Straight Whiskey" and "Blended Whiskey". This letter shows that there was political ramifications to this decision. The President was glad that the Govenor of the State of Kentucky was happy with his decision. With the growing prohibition movement, alcohol was very much a hot political question of the time.

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Unread postby dgonano » Thu Nov 18, 2004 5:27 pm

Mike,

We're all speachless because he called himself "Govenor"(sic).

Anyway Mike , didn"t many rye and bourbon whiskey rectifiers pull their products as a result of this Act ?
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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Nov 18, 2004 5:47 pm

Dave,
I am not sure of the exact figures, but many rectifiers had to change their ways as a result of this act. If there was no aged whiskey in their product (and many did not use aged whiskey) then they could not call it whiskey. Most of these products died in the market soon afterwards because everyone wanted "Pure Food Whiskey".

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Unread postby gillmang » Mon Feb 07, 2005 12:50 pm

What happened was, as Mike said, both the rectifiers' and traditional distillers' products could be termed (from 1910) whiskey provided they were distilled from grain. Thus, a product which mixed corn whisky or bourbon with spirit made from molasses could not be called whiskey, it had to be called, "a compound of whiskey and spirits derived from molasses", or use similar qualifying language. But this was a victory for the rectifiers. They had been under pressure from bourbon distillers to cease calling their product whiskey. The bourbon companies argued whiskey should only describe a spirit that was not just derived only from grain but was also distilled at the proof, and aged in the manner, traditional to bourbon manufacture. The Government did not go that far, however. The Government did require that mixtures of whiskey, of the same or different types, be so indicated. So, if you mixed bourbon of different origins, you had to say on the label something like, "Bourbon, a Blend". If you mixed bourbon and rye, you had to say something like, " a blend of straight whiskies". If you mixed GNS and bourbon, you could call your product a whiskey but had to indicate it was a combination of straight whiskey and GNS (as still to this day, look at the neck label of 7 Crown, for example). This was before the later Federal rules that described mashbill and specific aging requirements but one can see that this 1910 scheme has influenced whiskey regulation and labelling to this day.

From what I have read, the 1910 rules stopped people from putting out as whiskey distillates made from potatos or molasses, but the blending of straight and high proof whiskey (both made from grain) continued and, as before, could be sold as "whiskey". This did not help the traditional whiskey makers.

So I think in the end Kentucky interests were not advanced, or not as far as President Taft perhaps suggested in his letter. The same thing happened in Scotland, where the courts and an inquiry decided in the first decade of the 20th century that grain whisky (high proof distillate made in a column still) could be called whiskey. I wonder if the fact that bourbon makers were using column stills at the time in Kentucky may have weakened their argument that GNS was not 'whiskey'. Of course, the stills were (and are) operated in a way to reduce their fractionating efficiency. This meant they produce genuine whiskey because it is under the proof where this characterisation can be challenged (thereby containing, e.g., furfural, a compound not seen in GNS) but such production arcana may have eluded the authorities trying to figure out whether GNS was whiskey. There was also the factor of aging: since both high proof grain distillate and whiskey were aged in wood (e.g., Canadian Club was and is aged in wood), that lent authenticity to the newer, blended type whiskey. The idea of new charred wood being a special form of wood aging likewise may have eluded the authorities. Perhaps in the end though the Government's decision reflected political considerations: the rectifiers were large and well-established and maybe the Government felt it had to decide the issue in a way that would not offend them significantly.

Gary
Last edited by gillmang on Mon Feb 07, 2005 4:47 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Feb 07, 2005 2:29 pm

Gary,
Interesting post. I do have a question for you. Did Canada have the same sort of issue at that time, or did they simply sit back and see how the British and U.S. governments tackled the question?
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Unread postby gillmang » Mon Feb 07, 2005 2:39 pm

Hi Mike, thanks. I found all this on-line and will post soon the source.

As for Canada, I don't know the answer! I would think we followed the result in Britain although it may be too that the tradition of straight whiskey was almost lost anyway here by 1910, so maybe it never was an issue.

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Unread postby gillmang » Mon Feb 07, 2005 3:27 pm

See http://www.doctoryourself.com/history4.html.

The story (in the pre-Prohibition era) ends with the adoption of Food Inspectorate Decision 113. You have to read all the way through, it is a winding tale. The way Wiley explains it, the final call wasn't quite what the President wanted. But one thing seems clear from his chronology: a grain distillate of any proof could be called whiskey save that if it was under 80 proof the proof number had to be stated on the label. So that the only question after that was whether whiskeys of the same or different types were being mixed. If so, that fact (i.e., that they were a blend) had to be indicated on the package. I think the pure food laws later expanded on on what, "blend" meant for this purpose. The result of Decision 113 seems still fundamentally to be a part of the law sinec "whiskey" is defined to this day as any grain distillate (regardless of proof). The part of the Decision that allowed harmless color and flavoring in whiskey remains, too, but not as part of the definition of straight rye or bourbon.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Mar 09, 2005 3:10 pm

The Taylor Family papers I am working on have an interesting collection of clippings connected to this issue. Untill seeing this collection, I did not realize just how heated the arguement was between the "distillers" and the "rectifiers". The Taft decision is actually a compramise that made neither side completely happy. Before the decision the distillers were on the verge of making anything other than straight whiskey, called something other than whiskey. The rectifiers wanted to be able to call their product whiskey without any qualifiers. Political heads rolled as some officals left over from the Roosevlt era sided with the distillers on the Pure Food issue and were unhappy with the Taft decision. Some interesting clippings that I hope to spend more time with in the future.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Mar 29, 2005 10:48 am

I was looking at an article in Bonafort's yesterday and one fact that I found interesting is that they wanted to look at whiskey before Pure Food to decide what was whiskey. One thing they agreed on was that whiskey was between 90 and 103 proof.

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Unread postby gillmang » Tue Mar 29, 2005 1:26 pm

Carson covers all this in depth. He too mentions the norm of 45%-55% abv as part of the definition in peoples' minds (distillers) of straight whiskey and says much of the blended whiskey was sold under 45% abv. That Bonafort must be a gold mine of information, Mike, does it ever offer actual taste notes? That is the one thing I would love to see from that time, a taste note such as we make today but you almost never see that. The closest Carson comes is he says if you rubbed a good bourbon between your hands and it smelled like apples, that was a good bourbon (he was quoting a contemporary source). Charlie Thomasson wrote something very similar in his 1960's-era reminiscences of traditional distilling.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Mar 29, 2005 2:37 pm

Bonaforts is a trade magazine dealing mostly with bulk spirits. Sorry, no tasting notes. There is a great article about the Old Taylor distillery in the issue that we have in the collection. There is also great information about people involved in the industry as distillers, rectifiers and distributers.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Jan 02, 2008 11:27 am

I have been reading some information from this period and the more I read this material the more I believe that the stigma attached to the term "rectifiers" comes from the era of the Pure Food and Drug act (1900-1910). There were many very good whiskeys that were produced by "rectifiers" that did not own a distillery but purchased their whiskey from other people. They often "rectified" this whiskey by marrying whiskey from different distilleries to achieve their flavor profile or simply aging it past 8 years old for an extra aged product. Many of those blended with GNS were also very good products. It is true that there were many who made "rot gut" products of poor quality. Some were down right awful, but the whole side of the indutry should not be painted with the same brush.

It should be remembered that some of the most popular and expensive brands of today are produced by people operating under a rectifier's license. Nobody today refers to Julian or Evan as "rectifiers", yet what they are doing today is the same as what many others were doing at the end of the 19th century up to prohibition. There were some good rectifiers as well as the bad. I think Taft made the right decision in the end because it forced most of the worse to either clean up their act or label their product "immitation whiskey" which would kill their sales.
Mike Veach
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873
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Unread postby brendaj » Sun Jan 06, 2008 5:10 pm

Nobody today refers to Julian or Evan as "rectifiers", yet what they are doing today is the same as what many others were doing at the end of the 19th century up to prohibition


Well...in their defense, there is nothing 'added' to their Bourbon. Those guys are slightly different in that, they are most likely specifing distilling parameters, or buying stuff they've tasted and liked. Anything they bottle as Bourbon is still just barrel squeezin's and water...right?
As a Kentuckian, I consider it my civic duty to drink Bourbon, smoke and bet the ponies. Its a tuff job, but someone has to do it...
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Unread postby cowdery » Sun Jan 06, 2008 9:56 pm

Rectify means "to fix" and the main thing rectifiers sought to do was make whiskey more palatable, which they did in an environment without truth-in-advertising regulations of any kind. While some rectifiers mixed good, aged whiskeys together to make a whole greater than the sum; most filtered, redistilled, flavored and colored to create a profitable product according to the standards of the day. These were compound whiskeys which, while they weren't necessarily vile, were certainly not the product we call straight whiskey today. While I won't deny there were "good" rectifiers, if the ratio of good to bad was 1:10 I would be amazed. Today, rectifier means blender, as none redistill, few age, and maybe a few more filter. Modern rectifiers typically make other things too, such as gin and liqueurs.
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