On this day, when we inaugurate Barack Obama to a second term as U.S. President, I’m going to take a little time to get all political with this post about whiskey. I’m going to talk about democracy, the rights of the common folk, the equal access to consumer products, and most importantly, what YOU can do to have my cousin change a few silly U.S. regulations. My cousin? How can he help? Turns out that my cousin is the aforementioned Mr. Obama.
Kentucky, around 150 years ago, was a frontier land for the U.S. Much of it was settled by second and third generation Scots-Irish who’d been chased out of Pennsylvania years earlier following the Whiskey Rebellion. Think today’s Tea Partiers are dangerous? The Whiskey Rebellion saw thousands of people rise up to exercise their Second Amendment Rights as part of an organized militia and march across Pennsylvania to forcefully protest what they saw as unfair taxation against their livelihood. The agricultural commodity that was being unfairly taxed? Whiskey.
There is a perception that much of whiskey regulation through the years has to do with temperance and keeping the Devil’s spirit away from a God-fearing soul. Well…that’s not exactly correct. Most of the “sin” taxes against whiskey, from 17th Century Ireland to 21st Century UK have to do with hoarding money for those in power, pure and simple. And, from day one the wealthier and larger whiskey producers received better tax deals than the small, independent whiskey makers. By small and independent, I’m referring to farmers on the fringes of the wild who needed to make whiskey in order to get the best possible yield from whatever grain they grew.
I could go on and on about details of taxation, the people who were unfairly targeted and affected by it, how the temperance movement politically and morally attached themselves to alcohol taxation (and eventual suppression here in the U.S.). But, we’ll leave the history lesson for a book. The upshot of all of this is that my progenitors left Pennsylvania shortly after the Whiskey Rebellion and ended up in Kentucky where, family lore has it, they made some palatable whiskey.
A family branch split 170 years ago resulting in one descendent sitting at his laptop on Inauguration Day writing about democracy and another descendent standing in front of the world pledging to uphold the principles of democracy. So, today, Barack Obama continues a line of democratic succession unbroken since our first president, George Washington. Which brings me back to whiskey. You see, President Washington was once the biggest whiskey maker in America. In some ways, his sympathetic understanding of those whiskey makers (many of them his former soldiers) involved in the Whiskey Rebellion helped to mitigate what could have been an even more violent uprising.
All the cluttered U.S. government regulations that resulted from years of alcohol taxation and the temperance movement have led to a convoluted maze of federal, state, and local laws which makes buying alcohol seem like a really bad, “choose your own adventure” book. I mean, how bizarre is it that one of America’s biggest whiskey producing states, Kentucky, has counties in it where one is not allowed to purchase alcohol?
One of the most frustrating effects of these bizarre laws is the fact that U.S. regulations require alcohol to be sold in specific bottles sizes, including the 750ml bottle size (to learn why, check out http://inebrio.com/thescotchblog/?p=442 which I first read via www.cooperedtot.com). Why is that frustrating? Most of the rest of the world puts alcohol in 700ml bottles. The upshot? There are hundreds of fantastic whisky expressions from around the world which we cannot import into the U.S. due to difference in bottle size.
In my opinion, the U.S. regulation about bottle size is as much of a class issue as a consumer protection issue. Producing bottles this size is illegal in the U.S., but possessing 700ml bottles is not illegal. It is perfectly acceptable for me to fly to Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, India or anywhere else in the world and bring a limited number of 700ml bottles home with me. But, flying across the world on a regular basis to shop for whisky is cost prohibitive for me, and for most people, I assume.
The average whisky consumer, who likely has above averages tastes and fairly ambitious curiosity, misses out on the artistry, creativity, passion and craft of far too many whiskies and whisky makers because of this regulation. And the only reason this regulation exists is the zombie-like mentality of bureaucracy and a terrifying fear of the metric system (definitely check out that post I mentioned earlier).
Thankfully, thankfully, thankfully, cuz Barack has opened a door that allows whiskey lovers and people who believe in consumer fairness to speak out. In 2011, the White House launched the “We The People” online petition platform which allows for voices to be heard on any and all subjects that inspire the petitioners. The petitions have ranged from the practical (immigration reform) to the absurd (build a Death Star). But, they do let people speak to issues close to their heart and beliefs. Results from these petitions are mixed, but the petitions are at least a way to start the dialogue.
One petition very close to crossing the threshold of the minimum number of signees is a petition that aims to address the disparity in international and national bottle sizes for spirits. If successful, the petition would not burden domestic spirits bottlers, but would open the markets to imported bottles of smaller size. This would definitely benefit consumer choice and potentially lead to some shifts in pricing. Whether those shifts are up or down is unknown.
I urge you to take time this week, as we celebrate the concept of democracy here in the U.S., to connect with the whiskey making legacy of our first president, and with the ornery attitude of those whiskey rebels who fought for fair taxation and market access for their product, and sign this petition: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/allow-700ml-and-other-sized-bottles-distilled-spirits-be-imported-sale-united-states/C15PWSmY
Tell my cousin I sent you. And, he still owes me money for the parking ticket I got in France. But, that’s another story.