‘Straight bourbon’ does not mean ‘straight bourbon.’
Said another way, the legal meaning of the term ‘straight bourbon’ is different from the ordinary meaning of the term. This is a never-ending source of confusion and consternation for many.
The dictionary says the word ‘straight,’ when referring to an alcoholic drink, means undiluted, the same as ‘neat,’ and gives the example of “straight brandy.” This is the ordinary understanding of what ‘straight’ means in that context, a beverage served as-is, with nothing added. We use this meaning in everyday speech. “Give it to me straight” means “tell me the truth.”
Many whiskey enthusiasts very logically extend that understanding of ‘straight’ to insist that a whiskey with flavoring or a secondary barrel finish or anything else done to it whatsoever cannot and should not be labeled ‘straight bourbon,’ even with a modifier. It is no longer straight. That is, it is no longer just bourbon, something has been done to it. Maybe it’s now flavored bourbon, but it’s not straight bourbon.
They believe products so labeled are mislabeled due to the incompetence of regulators, the cupidity of producers, the chicanery of marketers, the duplicity of spirits journalists, or all the above.
Whatever the reason, they are having none of it.
But their indignation is misplaced.
What ‘straight’ means when it precedes the word ‘bourbon’ on a liquor label, whether bracketed by ‘Kentucky’ and ‘whiskey’ or not, is not the ordinary meaning of ‘straight’ as ‘undiluted.’ The same goes for ‘straight rye’ or the generic ‘straight whiskey.’ In the context of spirits labeling, as regulated by the U. S. Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau, ‘straight bourbon’ is a term-of-art, which is itself defined as “a word or phrase that has a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field or profession.”
The specialized meaning of a word or phrase can even, as in this case, contradict the ordinary meaning, or seem to. The two meanings in this case are certainly incompatible, hence confusion and consternation.
Here’s the deal. On a label, ‘straight bourbon’ does not mean ‘nothing but bourbon.’ ‘Straight bourbon’ means bourbon whiskey (which is itself a term-of-art precisely defined in the regulations) that has been stored in a new charred oak barrel for at least two years.
That is the entire definition of ‘straight whiskey,’ which covers straight bourbon, straight rye and any other straight whiskey. It doesn’t mean the term-of-art and the ordinary meaning. Just the term-of-art meaning applies. There is nothing about additives, nothing about filtration, nothing about finishes.
The term ‘straight whiskey’ gained its specialized meaning because of a presidential proclamation more than a century ago. Like the president president? Yes, William Howard Taft. Whiskey is that important.
Because the term-of-art overrides the ordinary meaning in this context, the ordinary meaning of ‘straight’ does not apply unless you say “straight straight bourbon” or “straight bourbon, straight,” and I’m sure no one wants that.
Charles K. Cowdery is an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. He is a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009). He is the author of multiple bourbon books, including Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, and is a...