Craft Spirits July 2021

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sk most casual consumers—and even a fair amount of industry professionals— what light whiskey is and you’ll likely get one or two answers. The most popular answer is that it is some sort of diet whiskey, a la products like Skinny Girl Margarita, lower on calories as well as lower on alcohol and flavor. The second most popular answer focuses solely on one part of the previous: Light whiskey is whiskey with a light flavor. As it turns out, light whiskey is, thankfully, neither. Light whiskey was first defined by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s predecessor, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in 1968 as a category of whiskey that was “produced in the United States at more than 160 proof, on or after January 26, 1968, and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers.” The category was created because American whiskey producers were facing stiff competition from both clear spirits as well as imported whiskies. Because American producers needed to use new barrels and imported whiskies did not—which made the imports cheaper to produce—the producers felt they were at an unfair advantage and something needed to be done. What came of the discussions between the government and American whiskey producers, with the government more or less controlling the show, was this new category, which was described in an April 1971 article in Time as “Pale in color, varying in strength between 80 and 90 proof, and bland-tasting enough to get lost in the mixer, [they] will come to market in July 1972.” When they reached the market four years later, Time continued, there would be an estimated 200 million gallons ready for sale, making up around 10% of the total market. Did light whiskey become the next new whiskey, ushering in an age of spirits with a flavor that fell somewhere between vodka and whiskey? No. Over the next few decades, it faded away in obscurity as vodka continued its reign as king of spirits in the U.S. and whiskey distilleries continued on making bourbons and ryes. The thing is, though, light whiskey is still being made and, while it may not become king of American whiskey, there is a chance, according to some, that it could play a role in the scene moving forward.

lexicon when they were looking for sourced whiskey for projects. “We started our distillery in 2015 and like a lot of distilleries we were going to be purists at first, but then realized we needed capital coming in,” says Rick Molitor, the owner and distiller of New Basin Distilling Co. in Madras,

Oregon. “We were looking for something unusual and unique through a secondary dealer and we found an 8-year American light whiskey out of Kentucky.” This became New Basin’s Strong whiskey, named after an Oregon pioneer (not the proof). The distillery has since released

The name is arguably the biggest barrier for light whiskey entering the market because the whiskeys themselves are not light—they’re not lower in proof and they’re not light tasting.

THE NEW LIGHT WHISKEYS While there are not many light whiskeys being produced today, there are still a growing number as distillers learn about the category. For some distillers, light whiskey entered their

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