I’ve talked about it before but I’m really into traveling. Travel opens our eyes to new things, it also shines a new light on the familiar and common place. While most people filter this experience through art or culture being a bartender and a boozehound I end up seeing it through the glass at the bottom of a bottle.
Proof is often erroneously conflated with quality
Spirits nerds, especially us whiskey focused ones, love to talk about “the rules.” Your spirit can’t be a Scotch if it isn’t made in Scotland, your spirit can’t be whiskey unless it’s made from some type of grain, your corn whiskey can’t be Bourbon unless it uses a brand new, freshly charred barrel, etc., etc,. We love these rules because they help us clearly delineate the teams and offer an offer a definitive right vs. wrong answer in any debate.
These rules also offer consumer protection. Ever wonder why most spirits in the US are bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV)? It’s because that’s the legal minimum. In the EU that minimum is 37.5% so you will see products, even ones that are traditionally 40%, packaged at the lower threshold. Why? The answer as it so often is, is taxes.
Proof is often erroneously conflated with quality. While the higher the alcohol content the more intense the intrinsic flavors of the sprit will be this is not the sole indicator of quality. If it was Everclear would be the number one premium spirit in the world. But it is true that spirits used to be sold at much higher alcohol content. The old standard of “proof” used to be if gunpowder soaked in the spirit would still light on fire. This ensured that rum rations on ships wouldn’t interfere with the firing of it’s canons but also that the spirit hadn’t been watered down. This proof point is 57%.
All of these taxes, traditions, and experiences coalesced over the years until it was finally turned into law with the double whammy of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 and the Safe Food and Drug Act of 1906
57% being proof is slightly intellectually irritating though so for ease of use in the US the scale was reduced to 50%=100 proof for easier conversions for, you guessed it, tax purposes. And before you could simply buy a prepackaged bottle of booze from the store you used to take an empty bottle to the store and fill it up directly from the barrel. Diluting the spirit to 40% again made the math easier. A 26oz bottle filled with 40% alcohol will always contain 10oz of alcohol so you always know exactly how much to pay in taxes. But why settle on 40% instead of 50%? That’s the ABV strength where ethanol mixed with water lights on fire at room temperature.
All of these taxes, traditions, and experiences coalesced over the years until it was finally turned into law with the double whammy of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 and the Safe Food and Drug Act of 1906 which finally legally defined all of the nefarious white lightning, applejack, and whiskies floating around the American country side. And while this does a wonderful job of maintain a threshold of quality, and safety, it ends up excluding flavors and drinking traditions that fall outside these norms.
For instance, The EU ended up with a lower proof point to respect many of the Eastern European vodka makers, and it should be noted that most international councils, like Scotch and Cognac, have their own rules and minimums that have to be met. And in one of my favorite anecdotes Elmer T. Lee, one of the Father’s of Modern Bourbon, supposedly only drank his Bourbon at 60 proof because he felt that was the perfect point where the alcohol burn didn’t get in the way of the flavor. The guy knew a few things so lets take a look at something that falls outside of almost all of these rules.
On a recent trip to the Cook Islands (look it up) in the second Duty Free store in an airport with only two gates I came across this bottle of Early Times. Now Duty Free is often a testing grounds for new products, premium bottlings, and a place to dump large amounts of product that aren’t moving.
Despite what the label says this bottle of Early Times is not a Bourbon, at least not in the United States. And this is where confusion comes in, does it follow the rest of the Bourbon laws? I have no idea so let’s assume it’s produced exactly the way regular Early Times is.
Regular Early Times is also not a Bourbon. It is produced in Kentucky by the Brown-Forman Corporation at the same distillery that produces Old Forester, which is a Bourbon. What separates the two is the barrel. Early Times is aged in reused Bourbon barrels so already it’s legally “just” a whiskey. But it’s packaged below the EU threshold of spirits at 37.1%, which means that this bottle isn’t even legally a whiskey. For the sake of novelty and the equivalent of nine American dollars I brought this bad boy across the ocean, through customs, and back home to the United States.
The reused barrels effect on the whiskey is immediately obvious as it’s color is lighter, more straw and hay than a full aged Bourbon that has those deep dark barrel influences.
On the nose there are all of those traditional whiskey aromas: vanilla, caramel, and a touch of stone fruit but they’re less intense due to the barrel. The spirits corn base is readily apparent even on the nose.
On the palette is sweet corn, a hint of spice, a touch of caramel, and not much else. It meats the flavor points of whiskey.
The finish is short but inoffensive. This isn’t terrible whiskey, but it is exactly the kind of whiskey an Old Fashioned cocktail was designed to enhance. Though it this case it would require a delicate touch because everything about this is so light that it would be easy to overwhelm the spirit with just a hair heavy dash of bitters.
I picked this bottle up because the proof point was amusing to me but in the end do those 2.9% points really make a difference? Yes, but there’s so much else going on with Early Times that they’re not going to make or break this spirit. It is putting in the minimum effort.
Ultimately, that’s why people look down on these bare minimum bottlings. It doesn’t feel special. They’re offering an experience that is just meeting a requirement. But sometimes all it takes is crossing an ocean for a requirement to transform into an unique, glass bottomed lens and let you see things in a new light.