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How Old is that Old Charter?

The plaintiff in a would-be class action lawsuit against Sazerac voluntarily dismissed all his claims in late January, ending the litigation. The case (Parker v. Buffalo Trace Distillery, Inc. et al.) began in November of last year, and concerned a subtle change on the label of Sazerac’s “Old Charter” brand of bourbon whiskey. The older and newer labels are above, side by side.

Among the various changes, the old label says, “AGED 8 YEARS,” while the new label simply displays the number “8.”

Plaintiff Nicholas Parker alleged that the Old Charter bourbon sold under the new label was no longer aged for 8 years, and that Sazerac’s continued use of the number “8” on the label caused consumers to believe that the bourbon was aged for 8 years. Sazerac responded with a motion to dismiss the complaint, alleging that Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approval of the label provided Sazerac with a “safe harbor” from Mr. Parker’s claims.

Just two weeks after Sazerac filed its motion to dismiss, Mr. Parker voluntarily dismissed the action. This voluntary dismissal meant that the court did not have to rule on the merits of Sazerac’s safe harbor defense, or Mr. Parker’s claims. If the Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka cases are any indication, it is likely that the safe harbor defense would not have insulated Sazerac in this case. It would seem that the parties reached a settlement, although the terms of any such settlement will likely remain private. Old Charter drinkers should keep an eye out for future label changes, which might indicate the terms of a settlement reached.

The voluntary dismissal notwithstanding, Mr. Parker’s claims raise an interesting issue: Shouldn’t TTB have a policy for this sort of thing? As it turns out, TTB does. TTB’s general stance has been that unexplained numbers on spirits labels are prohibited. That is, if you want to say “8,” you need to explain the significance of the number (e.g., “AGED 8 YEARS,” or “A BLEND FROM 8 BARRELS”). Take Jack Daniel’s, for instance:

While the number “7” appears prominently, the context (i.e., “Old No. 7 Brand”) makes it clear enough that “7” is part of the brand name, not the age of the spirit.

Re-examining the Old Charter labels, the new label does not seem to fall in line with TTB’s tenet. Although Sazerac’s incorporation of the unexplained “8” did not lead to a label rejection in this instance, it probably goes a long way toward explaining why Mr. Parker pounced on Mr. Brown.

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Aged 12 Seconds

The whiskey rules are pretty strict when it comes to straight whiskey. It has to be aged two years or more, in oak. But for many other types of whiskey, the rules have gotten pretty lax, and it seems like it only has to be aged but a moment.

Where you have a whiskey not designated as straight, it’s ok to age it let’s say one month, but the regulations require an age statement, any time the total age is less than four years. Here are a few examples of such age statements, roughly from shortest to not so short.

In many cases, the age statement is fairly small, on the back, mixed with other text, or some combination thereof. If you prefer whiskey aged more than “a very short time” — you may need to keep your eyes peeled, or just look for straight whiskey. Let us know if you see other good examples.

The full regulation is here and a key excerpt is in the image below.

Finally, TTB has a helpful FAQ here. It tends to say this sort of thing is no longer ok. Not ok because it tends to overstate the age (AGED LESS THAN TWO YEARS). It is hard to know whether it’s aged 12 seconds, 1.99 years, or — 0.00000038052 years.

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Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Wine

bzin

At USBevX a few days ago I heard lots of questions about various wines aged in Bourbon barrels. But I did not hear lots of answers so I thought I would take a look and see what’s going on. This Fetzer example, above, seems like a good place to start.

It tends to show that it is okay to mention Bourbon on a vintage- and varietal-designated wine. I am a little surprised I don’t see any reference to a formula approval, or to the amount of aging in said barrel. This Fetzer label is also noteworthy because it quickly drew the ire of the big Buffalo, as in Buffalo Trace; Sazerac charged at Fetzer for attempting to graze on land staked out long ago by the whiskey company. This really good article discusses the trademark dispute, about 1/3 of the way down the page.

I see about 64 wine labels with reference to Bourbon as approved by TTB during the past five years. Another representative one, from another big company, is this Robert Mondavi approval. I don’t really see any comparable labels, in the prior five year period. From these two examples, and a bit of asking around, it sounds like the reference to Bourbon should not appear on the same line as the wine’s class/type statement. Also, you are more likely to need aging details (e.g., Aged 6 Months) on the label if the age reference appears on the “brand label.”

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Age Range on Wines

This Malvira red wine happens to mention that the Barbera d’Alba blend is “aged in French Oak barriques … for 18-24 months.” Is there anything so troublesome about that? Maybe so. On a similar label (with a different age range), the above rejection shows that TTB would prefer that wine labels show the actual amount of age, rather than a range or guesstimate.

TTB did not cite any specific authority in the rejection above, but 27 CFR 4.38(f) would make it hard for the importer to win this argument. It says:

(f) Additional information on labels. Labels may contain information other than the mandatory label information … if such information complies with the requirements … and does not conflict with, nor in any manner qualify statements required by this part. In addition, information which is truthful, accurate, and specific, and which is neither disparaging nor misleading may appear on wine labels.

The stated range (six months on one and two months on the other) may be accurate and non-disparaging, but it’s not especially specific.

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