I'm trying to get an answer but the Columbus Day holiday may be working against me.
Here's the reply from Jack Daniel's PR agency. I'm flabbergasted, but there it is. As I replied to him, the definition of ‘neutral spirits,’ as a class designation, is distinguishable from the definition of vodka, which appears below it as a type designation within the class of neutral spirits, much as ‘rye whiskey’ appears as a type designation within the class of whiskey. The definition of ‘neutral spirits’ as a class, while it does not include the "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color" requirement for vodka, does clearly state that the spirit must be distilled above 190° of proof. The ruling, as you describe it, would seem to undermine the definition of neutral spirits for more purposes than just the labeling of this one Jack Daniel’s product.
I have made inquiries to TTB.
Here's his response:
Good afternoon. Thank you for your inquiry. Per the portion of the Code of Federal Regulations describing neutral spirits (vodka) and whiskey copied and provided below, vodka has to be distilled at or above 190 proof and “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. Whiskeys must be distilled at less than 190 proof and “possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be stored), and bottled at not less than 80 proof.”
The net of this is that our unaged rye did not satisfy the “Class 2; Whiskey” requirement of being stored in an oak container, therefore the TTB ruled that it should be labeled as a “neutral spirit” even though it was distilled at 140 proof and obviously violates the stated vodka requirement of being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this ruling, it is assumed that the TTB considers all whiskies (except corn whisky) to be neutral spirits until they enter the barrel for maturation. Jack Daniel’s packaging and legal departments argued that the Tennessee Unaged Rye should be labeled as an “unaged whiskey” which we felt more accurately described the nature of the product to the consumer, but the TTB ruled against this proposal and would only approve the label under the category “neutral spirit”.
Jack Daniel’s understands this category classification can certainly be a point of confusion. The Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Unaged Rye is a fermented mash of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley that was distilled at 140 proof and charcoal mellowed, but it was never entered into an oak barrel.
Again, thank you for your inquiry. Please let me know if you have more concerns or questions.
Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
PART 5—LABELING AND ADVERTISING OF DISTILLED SPIRITS
Subpart C—Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits
§ 5.22 The standards of identity.
Standards of identity for the several classes and types of distilled spirits set forth in this section shall be as follows (see also §5.35, class and type):
(a) Class 1; neutral spirits or alcohol. “Neutral spirits” or “alcohol” are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190° proof, and, if bottled, bottled at not less than 80° proof.
(1) “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.
(2) “Grain spirits” are neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.
(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.
Jack Daniel’s Media Relations
Just sitting here waiting for a ski app to load (and becoming increasingly certain that the snow will melt in April before it does) it's frustrating to see the industry trot out these suspect (at best) line extensions that seek to capitalize on big brand names and an increasing demand in whiskey. Quick, stock up on Heaven Hill BIB, VOB100 and WSR while you can. It won't be long before Echo Spring 105% Near-Grain Thrice Distilled Normandy Hooch or Beam Family 1798 Original CornRye White Mule Spirit Whiskee debut on shelves for $79! Larcey's one great thing; but these "specialties" are distracting, and at prices that are insulting.
Dumbfounded. Who the hell is running the TTB? And what are they drinking?
The outcome strikes me as no less odd than it does others, but it is something I felt was plausible, based on the taste reports and what Mark had reported. I took some ribbing, but I was right in the end, and as no one else has said so, I will.
It's one of the better threads on the board in recent times. 99.999% of the people could care less but some of us do.