View Full Version : When was the term "straight" first used with bourbon?

10-03-2012, 13:06
I noticed that the barrels on "Hell on Wheels" are stenciled "Kentucky Straight Bourbon", and was wondering when Bourbon was first referenced as "Straight"?

10-04-2012, 13:21
I noticed that the barrels on "Hell on Wheels" are stenciled "Kentucky Straight Bourbon", and was wondering when Bourbon was first referenced as "Straight"?

It was codified and given a meaning (although that meaning was to change) in the 1909 Taft Decision, which means if was in common use before that. It probably came into general use in the 1880s to distinguish real whiskey from compound (i.e., fake) whiskey. The legal meaning of 'straight' now is just aged at least two years, but the more general meaning is whiskey that hasn't been adulterated.

10-04-2012, 17:00
This is one of the earliest published references, from 1869 (p. 274):


In this usage, it meant taken neat, not mixed with water (as in toddy) or sugar (the "gum" mentioned is "gomme", French for a rich sugar solution) or anything else.

Dictionaries of Americanisms in the later 1800's reference this meaning. However, about the same time, it acquired the meaning of whiskey from the distillery, i.e., non-rectified or compounded whiskey. Which is an extension really or allied idea to the concept of taking it neat or pure so to speak.

Yet another meaning in the books is that straight meant tax-paid from the distillery, bonded as it became, as opposed to crooked, whiskey not tax paid and likely stretched with GNS or something else to enhance the value.

All these are gleaned from searches in google books and anyone can confirm them.


10-05-2012, 10:49
I'll pick a nit, as the reference is to straight whiskey, not straight bourbon, though the point about 'straight's' evolving meaning is right on.

10-05-2012, 11:09
Fair enough Colonel. :)


02-16-2013, 10:47
The legal meaning of 'straight' now is just aged at least two years, but the more general meaning is whiskey that hasn't been adulterated.
In additional to the general meaning, it is also mightbe the legal meaning. The way I read the regulations, when "straight" is indicated, the whiskey hasn't been adulterated. Unless I am reading it wrong, the term "straight" is used for all bourbon 2+ years old, for other whiskeys that are 2+ years old and have not had any coloring or flavoring added to it. I am getting this from § 5.22(b)(1)(iii), which specifices that Whiskies conforming to the standards (for bourbon, rye, malt, corn whiskey, whiskey) .. stored for a period of 2 years or more shall befurther designated as “straight”, with the exception (from § 5.39 &§ 5.23) that if coloring, flavoring, and blending materials are added then the whiskey cannot be designated as a "straight" whiskey. While there are likely legacy products with wording on labels that do not conform with how the CFR currently defines "straignt," the way I read it is if the whiskey is 2+ years and meets the definition of one of the defined class & types of whiskey, it is either straight (with no coloring or flavoring) or not straight (with coloring and/or flavoring, like caramel, sugar, or blending sherry added).

02-16-2013, 17:03
Enoch since Civil War times the term Straight Bourbon has generally meant the good stuff.

02-16-2013, 17:29
In December, 1909, the Taft Decision created two kinds of whiskey, blended whiskey (which could contain unaged whiskey, neutral spirits, flavoring and coloring) and straight whiskey (which had to be 100% aged whiskey at least two years old, with nothing added). Before that, the term was used informally to mean roughly the same thing, but this made it law. That has been its legal meaning ever since.

02-16-2013, 17:35
Straight is not inconsistent with flavoring added: a blend of straight whiskeys can under certain circumstances include permitted flavoring and coloring. In my view, the term straight primarily is intended to refer to added age, meaning whiskey at least two years old and not just bourbon, say, aged for a time.


02-17-2013, 10:45
Flavoring and coloring can be added only if disclosed, i.e., "straight bourbon whiskey with ..." You can't add flavoring or coloring and just call it "bourbon" or, if 2 years old, "straight bourbon." In the dichotomy of "straight" vs "blended," blends can be flavored/colored while straights cannot.

02-17-2013, 11:28
Yeah, in the blended category, a blend of straight whiskeys can be flavored/colored with caramel & sherry, which I think is consistent with what most would expect.
In the Bourbon category, it is my understanding that flavoring/coloring cannot be added at any point without changing the class/type. So for Bourbon, the only meaning added by the term "straight" is that it has been in oak barrels 2+ years (barrel-finishing Bourbon in a sherry or other used barrel might be a way to add flavoring to Bourbon without changing the category).
For other whiskeys, "straight" has more meaning.
For "rye whiskey," for example, flavoring and coloring can be added and does not need to be disclosed as long as it falls within the "HARMLESS COLORING/FLAVORING/BLENDING MATERIALS" and is less than 2.5% of volume (limited to caramel for coloring, and for flavoring vaguely defined as whatever is natural and customary).
The practice of adding color/flavoring is prohibited for straight whiskeys (blend of straight whiskeys being sort-of an exception).
So that brings me back to this interpretation of what is "straight" (and therefore what is not "straight"): § 5.22 (b)(1)(iii) Whiskies conforming to the standardsprescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section (this is the section that defines Bourbon, rye, corn whiskey, etc), which have beenstored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years ormore shall be further designated as “straight”.
If your rye whiskey is 2+ years old, and has no coloring/flavoring added to it, it shall be designated as straight. I am not a lawyer, but "shall" sounds more like "will be designated" than "can be designated at the producer's discretion."
If your rye whiskey is 2+ years old, and does have coloring/flavoring, then it is not straight.
Yes, to the consumer, "straight" generally means the good stuff. And, yes it tells you if the product is 2+ years old or not.
But I think the more meaningful aspect of the modifier "straight" (for whiskeys other than Bourbon) is that it tells you if the producer has added flavoring/coloring or not.

02-17-2013, 14:50
A blend of straights can be a straight so long as nothing else is added.

Only charred new oak barrels may be used for a straight. One that previously held sherry is used.

02-17-2013, 15:18
I read section 5.22(b)(5) of Title 27:


to mean that a label may state that a product is a blend of straight whiskeys, or (if applicable) a blend of straight ryes, say, and contain the permitted flavouring and colouring indicated (see also section 5.23) without stating on the label what the flavoring is. None of the component whiskeys are blends, they are straights. As I read 5.23, if you exceed the permitted maximum per cent of flavoring or coloring, then there is a redesignation, but not otherwise.

I have seen many old label reproductions of blended straights of different kinds and they don't state what the flavorings or colorings are. I don't believe the law has changed in this regard.


02-17-2013, 18:24
That is the way I understand it too, Gillman. If it is "blended," even a "blend of straights," no label disclosure is required for coloring/flavoring.

The section Gillman referenced also clarifies that “A blend of straight whiskies” ... does not conform to the standard of identify for “straight whisky.”

With regard to new oak barrels vs used barrels and “straightwhiskey”, I think that straight corn whiskey can be aged in used barrels. And as far as Bourbon or Rye Whiskey go, my understanding is that as long as the whiskey is aged in a new barrel first, so that it meets the barrel requirement and first becomes Bourbon or Rye, it can then later be stored (not aged) in a used barrel. However, the years in the a used barrel, in the case of Bourbon and rye, cannot count towards the number of years the producer can use in an age statement.

02-17-2013, 18:46
When it speaks of a blend of straight whiskeys not conforming to the standard of identity for straight whiskey, it is (IMO) referring e.g. to a combination of straight whiskeys made in different states. If you combine straight whiskeys of the same type from one state, bourbon say, or rye, or other straight whiskey including whiskey of which no grain forms 51% or more, then that is straight whiskey of that type full stop. But if you combine whiskeys of the same type made in different States, that is the kind of straight whiskey mixture for which flavoring and coloring are allowed (without needing to be disclosed, again as I read this).

Another example is combining straight bourbon and straight rye.


02-18-2013, 18:36
Flavoring and coloring can be added only if disclosed, i.e., "straight bourbon whiskey with ..." You can't add flavoring or coloring and just call it "bourbon" or, if 2 years old, "straight bourbon." In the dichotomy of "straight" vs "blended," blends can be flavored/colored while straights cannot.
Hi Chuck. You know the rules are unclear when we have to try this hard to understand if you can add color and flavoring to bourbon!
Good point above, and I agree that yes, you can add color and flavoring to Bourbon ... but IMHO then it is not Bourbon any more. It becomes a distilled spirits specialty (or mint julep, maybe, if you do it at home).
Example: FD&C Yellow #5 is added to straight bourbon whisky. The resulting product is no longer “straight bourbon whisky.” The product is now a distilled spirits specialty and must be labeled with a statement of composition such as “STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKY WITH FD&C YELLOW #5 ADDED" (this example is from page 7.1 of the Beverage Alcohol Manual).
Pages 7-10 and 7-11 have a table on when flavoring/coloring can be added, and when it needs to be disclosed. Not as good as the CFR, but easier to read. http://ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter7.pdf
Every time I review the BAM, or the CFR, I come to the conclusing that flavoring/coloring can not be added to any "straights," regardless of label disclosures.
But I have not spoken to the TTB on this topic, so I could have it wrong ...

02-18-2013, 18:47
You can't add coloring and flavoring to bourbon or straight bourbon, or rye or straight rye, say, as such, agreed, i.e., without disclosure. The chart confirms that. But they can be added to mixtures of straight whiskeys in certain circumstances, without disclosure, that is my only point. What is interesting is that the chart can be read to go further than I think it means to, e.g., I don't think color or flavor can be added without disclosure to two straight bourbons from the same state. You can read the chart to go that far but it is just a summary and I don't think the law actually intends that.


02-18-2013, 19:45
Thanks Gary. I agree, it's just a summary.