Straight whiskey (or straight whisky), as defined in U.S. law, is whiskey created by distilling a fermented (malted or unmalted) cereal grain mash to create a spirit not exceeding 80% alcohol content by volume (abv) and then aging the spirit for at least two years at an abv concentration not exceeding 62.5% at the start of the aging process.
Mixing whiskey from different barrels (and sometimes from different distilleries, although only from within the same state), filtering, and dilution with water (while retaining at least a 40% abv concentration) are the only allowed modifications for straight whiskey prior to its bottling. American straight whiskey must be aged in charred new oak barrels and must be put into the barrels for aging at a concentration not exceeding 62.5% abv. When bottled, only water to reduce proof may be added. This is the definition established for production of American whiskey for consumption within the United States as per the U.S federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. (The regulations do not necessarily apply to American whiskey made for export.)
Alternatively, straight can also refer to a way of requesting and/or serving a drink of whiskey—pouring the spirit without any water, cordial, or other mixer. Thus, in bartending terminology, straight is typically synonymous with neat.
Aging and bottled in bond requirements
The core aging requirement that defines a whiskey as straight is if the distillate has spent at least two years stored in charred new oak barrels, except corn whiskey which must use uncharred or used oak barrels. The spirit mellows in this time and penetrates the wood, extracting many of the flavor compounds and caramelized wood sugars.
A straight whiskey that has been aged less than four years is required to be labeled with an age statement describing the actual age of the product.
Other than an age statement, which is a direct reference to the age of the youngest spirit in a bottle, the only other special labeling dealing with the age of a straight whiskey in the U.S. is bottled in bond. All bonded whiskeys are required to be straight whiskeys, and are additionally required to be aged for at least four years. Bonded whiskeys must also fulfill several other requirements, including:
- They must be produced from a single mash type at a single distillery during a single distillation season (analogous to a single malt whiskey).
- They must be bottled at 100 U.S. proof (50% alcohol by volume).
- They must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse.
- The label must identify the distillery at which the product was distilled and, if different, the plant at which it was bottled.
When at least 51% of the content of the mash used in the distillation consisted of one specific type of grain, the designation can be coupled with the name of the grain and an indication of whether the grain was malted. Thus, the following styles are eligible to qualify as straight whiskey: bourbon whiskey (using a mash of corn), malt whiskey (using a mash of malted barley), rye whiskey, rye malt whiskey, corn whiskey, and wheat whiskey. For example, the labeling Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is commonly used to indicate a straight bourbon whiskey made in Kentucky. Extra ingredients, such as caramel coloring are forbidden.
The limit of 80% maximum abv concentration for the distillation is a key element of the definition of straight whiskey. At alcohol concentrations exceeding this amount, most of the flavor from the original fermented mash that was used in the distillation process will be removed, resulting in a more neutral grain spirit.
Straight whiskey is also an important component of American blended whiskey. Blended whiskey made in the United States must contain at least 20% straight whiskey. The remaining portion is higher-proof spirit, often unaged neutral grain spirits, which are less expensive to produce. The straight whiskey component adds characteristic whiskey flavor to the blend, as the higher proof spirit loses most flavoring compounds during the distillation process, and does not gain flavors from barrel aging.
Canadian whisky, which is typically a blend, also uses straight-whiskey-style spirits as a major flavor component, though Canada does require at least three years of aging (usually in used barrels) to qualify any product as Canadian whisky or as "rye whisky".
- "Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, Title 27 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 5.22(1)(iii)" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-10-17.
- "Chapter I--Alcohol And Tobacco Tax And Trade Bureau, Department Of The Treasury ; Part 5—Labeling And Advertising of Distilled Spirits". TITLE 27--Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms. US Government. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- "Statements of Age", U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, April 2007, page 8-15.
- "The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009: Guidance for Producers and Bottlers" (PDF). Scotch Whisky Association. 2 December 2009. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
- "Canadian Food and Drug Regulations (C.R.C., c. 870) - Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky (B.02.020)". (Access date December 15, 2010.)