Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date, including 5 questions on bourbon and 5 questions on rye whiskey.
Drinkers don’t always have an accurate conception of what exactly spirits are, and how they are made, but despite the knowledge gap that exists between your average consumer downing a mixed drink at the bar and the guy ordering neat pours of whiskey at $20 per ounce, there’s likely never been a time in our country’s history when drinkers generally understood the category of whiskey as well as they do now. You can thank the cocktail renaissance for that, and the fetishization of bourbon and scotch in modern media that has led to far more drinkers taking an interest in “the good stuff,” as it were. This increased level of knowledge has its drawbacks, of course—most notably the phenomenon of bourbon price gouging, even at liquor stores—but overall it’s a net positive for drinkers.
Still, there are corners and niches of the whiskeysphere that are still largely a mystery to the average consumer, and one you may find yourself running into more frequently as of late is the term “light whiskey.” It’s an inherently deceptive term when viewed from a modern vantage point, specifically because “light whiskey” isn’t what the average person on the street would no doubt assume it to be, based solely on the name. Which is to say, light whiskey has nothing at all to do with calorie content, or carbs, or residual sugar. It’s not part of the “better for you” alcohol fad at all. Rather, light whiskey is defined by different methods of distillation and aging, and exists as a relic of the 1960s and 1970s, when American whiskey was at its lowest point.
It might surprise you to learn, then, that light whiskey has also seen something of an unexpected comeback in the last few years, but in a form that is once again new and unexpected. So let’s explore what light whiskey truly is, and why you may now find it back on the shelves.
Light whiskey exists as a category thanks to rapidly changing tastes in American food and drink in the late 1960s and 1970s. Dazzled by the new era of “easy” and “fast,” uniform blandness was very much en vogue at the time. It was the era when Wonder Bread ruled the land, and when it came to spirits, American consumers were in search of similarly “light” and inoffensive tastes—or at least that’s what producers were reasoning. Consumption of classic American whiskey styles such as bourbon and rye whiskey was indeed falling, as those styles were increasingly portrayed as old-fashioned and stuffy in comparison with hip, clear spirits such as vodka and gin. Unsurprisingly, this is also considered the beginning of a low point for American cocktail culture, which would stretch for decades.
Likewise, American whiskey producers found themselves at a comparative disadvantage because their products (such as bourbon and rye) were inherently more costly to produce than competing, more neutrally flavored imported whiskey varieties from countries such as Ireland, Scotland and especially Canada. This is thanks to the legal requirements for distillation of products bearing labels such as “bourbon” in the U.S. To qualify as “bourbon,” newly distilled whiskey cannot be distilled to a point higher than 160 proof, it must enter the barrel at less than 125 proof, and it must use newly charred oak barrels. In Ireland, Scotland and Canada, meanwhile, initial distillation could be taken as high as 190 proof, the whisky could enter the barrel at a higher strength, and the most commonly utilized barrels were re-used American oak. All three factors made for cheaper whiskey/whisky production, at least for the mass-market flagship brands.
All three of those factors also made for less technically flavorful whiskies, which was considered an attractive quality in this moment. One might expect distilling to a higher initial level to yield a more flavorful spirit, but the opposite is actually true—the closer one gets to pure ethanol (200 proof), the more flavorless and neutral the spirit becomes as it is stripped of subtle, grain-derived flavor compounds called congeners. By the time you reach 190 proof, what you’re left with is more or less vodka or grain neutral spirits, rather than what we recognize as “whiskey.” This potent, neutral liquor would then be inserted into a used barrel, where it wouldn’t be able to pick up nearly as much flavor as something like bourbon would from a newly charred barrel. As a result, a lightly aged whiskey of this nature isn’t particularly flavorful, but when diluted to a mere 80 proof before bottling it can drink very easily, and sell very cheaply. And that is the profile that American “light whiskey” meant to emulate—cheap and inoffensive.
A typical American “light whiskey” brand of the 1970s.
Distillers sought to combat the perceived threat of imported, less flavorful whisky brands by changing the definitions of terms such as “bourbon” and “rye whiskey,” so in 1968 a group of distillers legally appealed to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to do exactly that. What they wanted was to be able to initially distill whiskey to higher proof points, and age it in re-used oak barrels, while still calling the resulting whiskey “bourbon” for the sake of name recognition. Mercifully, the predecessor to the modern TTB rejected this idea as one that would damage the perception of terms such as “bourbon,” and instead created a new category for the type of product that the distillers wanted to produce: Light whiskey. In doing so, they more or less saved bourbon as we continue to know and love it today.
It’s hard to over-emphasize what a phenomenally bad move the redefinition of the term “bourbon” likely would have ended up being for the American whiskey industry as we know and love it today. In fact, it’s entirely fair to question whether the American brown liquor revival of the 2000s would have happened at all, had those dependable, old-school bourbon brands that remained on the shelf instead turned into light whiskey that just so happened to have the word “bourbon” on it. It may have been impossible for Americans to rediscover bourbon, if the legal definition of “bourbon” had been so damaged.
Today, Four Roses is a beloved American bourbon brand. But at this point, it was advertising its lack of flavor.
As a new category of product, American light whiskey also proved disappointing in terms of the impact it made in the market when brands started arriving in the early 1970s. It was projected to capture more than 10% of the U.S. distilled spirits market by the early 1980s, but most of the brands performed poorly—especially driven by kitschy and counterintuitive marketing like the above, now infamous Four Roses Premium ad that promised “taste that underwhelms” as a literal selling point. Few light whiskey brands stuck around—instead, much of the light whiskey that was being produced ended up being blended with legitimate bourbon to create cheap, bottom shelf blended whiskeys. That’s still how much of the light whiskey produced today is used. For a long time, it seemed like light whiskey would simply become a forgotten footnote in the larger history of American whiskey.
A funny thing happened in recent years, though—light whiskey began to enter the conversation once again, but in an entirely new form. Along the way, modern American distilleries and consumers have begun to consider new possibilities for light whiskey, envisioning it not as a cheaper or blander spin on bourbon, but as an entirely different type of flavor canvas.
A key element of light whiskey’s rediscovery was a substantial stock of well-aged light whiskey that sat undiscovered for years at that midwestern Mecca of American whiskey production, MGP of Indiana. Well known for contract distilling and selling their bourbon and rye to countless small American micro-distilleries, MGP also produces numerous other recipes, including some light whiskey. This particular batch had been intended for a Canadian distillery in the 1990s, likely as part of a cheap blended whiskey, but it was never actually sent up North. Instead, it was forgotten and continued to age for more than a decade until it was discovered, which led to a reevaluation of the liquid—turns out that if you give light whiskey long enough in the barrel, ‘ala scotch whisky, it can turn into something much more interesting. This well-aged light whiskey has been described as akin to “liquid candy,” allowing the gentle sweetness and fruit notes of the corn heavy recipe to shine through, while also giving the re-used oak enough time to make an impact. In short, it tastes nothing like the cheap light whiskeys of the 1970s.
MGP began selling these stocks of well-aged light whiskey to other distilleries, who then began releasing that stuff into the wild, where it turned some heads. High West 14 Year Light Whiskey is one such example. Other distilleries who have won great accolades, such as Old Carter Whiskey Co., have also made use of this well-aged light whiskey as a component in complex blends such as their Old Carter Straight American Whiskey, offering a flavor unlike those that can be found in bourbon and rye. Still other distilleries have taken these well-aged light whiskeys and then given them additional barrel finishes in other spirits or fortified wine barrels, creating something stranger still. There have even been some distilleries, such as Wisconsin’s La Crosse Distilling, who have started making their own newly distilled, high-rye light whiskey rather than simply sniping some of the well-aged MGP product that’s still out there. It seems there may actually be a market out there for light whiskey after all—an overlooked flip side to the bourbon boom, if you will.
Suddenly, there are light whiskey brands with actual cachet.
One distillery with a noticeable focus on light whiskey is Madras, Oregon’s New Basin Distilling Co., who have been operating a modest distilling company since 2012. Their flagship Strong American Light Whiskey (80 proof) is sourced from both MGP and another, unrevealed distillery, and they recently unveiled something truly eye-popping: A cask-strength version that weighs in at a burly 133.4 proof, aged 13 years. Fittingly, they refer to that one as Strongest American Light Whiskey, and it was the recent winner of Sip Magazine’s Best of the Northwest spirits competition, bringing home a platinum medal. I was able to obtain a sample of Strongest, and suffice to say, the flavor profile is anything but “light.” Rather, it’s positively explosive, with huge aromatics and flavors of vanilla, chocolate, toasted coconut, green apple, marshmallow and spicy, seasoned oak on the palate. It’s a good illustration of what kind of spirit “light whiskey” is capable of being, when the goal isn’t simply to make it as easy to drink as possible.
Today, light whiskey is once again emerging as a quirky subset of the American whiskey market defined primarily by bourbon and rye. This time around, though, light whiskey comes not as a bourbon replacement for vodka drinkers, but as a comrade in arms exploring dimensions of flavor outside of bourbon’s wheelhouse. It will be interesting to see how far light whiskey can go from here, but don’t buy a bottle thinking that it’s somehow going to help you shave inches off your waistline.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.