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Issue 123 - A Grading System For Whiskey

Whisky Magazine Issue 123
October 2014

 

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A Grading System For Whiskey

The good, the great and exceptional bourbon labels

Inside a locked room and surrounded by Prohibition era whiskey bottles, I was researching my next book, Bourbon Curious: A Simple Guide to the Savvy Drinker, and stumbled upon an interesting letter that made me question modern distillers.

Dated 2 December 1941, and addressed to Miss Marcella McKenna, secretary of the McKenna Distillery in Fairfield, Kentucky, the US Treasury Agency's deputy commissioner wrote: 'The analysis of the samples of the whiskey taken from the barrels set aside in your warehouse and from barrels set aside in a number of other warehouses throughout the country were not made for the purpose of grading the whiskey with respect to quality. The study made on your whiskey and the whiskey produced by other distillers was for the purpose of determining the chemical changes that take place in whiskey during the time it is stored in wooden packages...this office is concerned with the collection of taxes levied on distilled spirits...'

After the government required aged samples to determine how to appropriately tax them, the McKenna Distillery essentially wanted to know if its whiskey was better than its fellow distillers. It's a fair question, if you ask me, and a uniformed government whiskey-grading system may not be as farfetched as it sounds.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades everything from cotton to meat products and offers financial premiums to farmers. The higher a product grades, the more money the farmer receives. For exampl...

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