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Without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color no more!!


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TTB did a rule change recently that removed  the requirement for vodka to be without distinctive character, aroma taste or color and amending the rules. 
 

why isn’t this all over the news and why have I not seen this discussed anywhere other than artisan spirits magazine summer 2020?

are we on the cusp of full flavored vodkas?  What does that mean for labeling?

 

here is the full text of the pertinent part of the federal register 

https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-04-02/pdf/2020-05939.pdf


10. Standard of Identity for Vodka
In Notice No. 176, TTB proposed to amend the standard of identity for vodka, a type of neutral spirit, to codify the holdings in several past rulings: Revenue Ruling 55–552 and Revenue Ruling 55–740 (vodka may not be stored in wood); ATF Ruling 76–3 (vodka treated with charcoal or activated carbon may be labeled as ‘‘charcoal filtered’’ under certain parameters); and Revenue Ruling 56–98 and ATF Ruling 97–1 (allowing treatment with up to 2 grams per liter of sugar and trace amounts (1 gram per liter) of citric acid). In addition, TTB specifically sought comment on whether the current requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color should be retained and, if this requirement is no longer appropriate, what the appropriate standards should be for distinguishing vodka from other neutral spirits.
TTB received twelve comments in response to the proposed changes to the standard of identity for vodka. TTB did not receive any comments relating to the proposal to incorporate several past rulings related to treatment of vodka with sugar, citric acid, and charcoal.
TTB requested comments on whether the requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color should be retained and, if this requirement is no longer appropriate, what the standards should be for distinguishing vodka from other neutral spirits. Ten commenters suggested that the requirement should be eliminated. For example, Altitude Spirits stated that ‘‘[t]he requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color should NOT be retained and is no longer appropriate given the variety in base ingredients, flavors, and flavor profiles found in the diverse vodka category.’’ Within this group of comments, two commenters stated that they believe that TTB should reverse its longstanding policy and allow vodka to be aged in wood.
Two individual commenters recommended—without explanation— that the standard be kept unchanged.
TTB Response
Based on its review of the comments, TTB agrees that the requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color no longer reflects
consumer expectations and should be eliminated. Vodka will continue to be distinguished by its specific production standards: Vodka may not be labeled as aged, and unlike other neutral spirits, it may contain limited amounts of sugar and citric acid.
Accordingly, TTB is amending the existing regulations at § 5.22(a)(1) to remove the requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color, and to incorporate in the regulations the standards set forth in the rulings discussed above, obviating the need for those rulings which will be canceled. TTB will also make a conforming change to existing
§ 5.23(a)(3)(iii), which discusses the addition of harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials to neutral spirits, to reflect the allowed additions to vodka in amended § 5.22(a)(1).

 

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Might have been a rule, but wonder if it was ever really enforced.  Those attributes are largely individually subjective, what’s distinctive to me might not be distinctive to you.

There are already plenty of distinctive vodkas on the market.  Of course prior to this, they would argue they were not.  Now they can argue they are, as marketing advantage.

Anyone that has attempted to run neutral-proof on a low number of plates knows it’s very easy to hit the necessary proof minimum yet still be choc-full o’ “distinctive” flavor.

I’d argue some feedstock is almost impossible to really make completely neutral.  Cane sugar neutral for example, even after carbon treatment, still retains a rummy top note.

 

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For practical labeling purposes, the standard did not change.  There had been an unvoiced assumption that any spirit distilled at over 190 was neutral.  The added "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color" was a sort of regulatory puffery, dating back to 1949, when the first vodka standard was written.  Prior to that, all manner of spirits were being labeled vodka and the government said it was concerned that people did not know what to expect when they bought it.  I suspect that concern was industry driven, but I do not know.  Most standards are.  Anyway, by policy, TTB does  not make organoleptic evaluations of any product.  

The significant change comes in the way in which back label statements can represent and the which you can advertise the product.  You can now talk about vodka as if it were a wine, with hints of this and that, which most of us who buy spirits will never be able to taste.  

Whether something is neutral or not is demonstrably subjective.  For evidence of that, look at ATF's attempts, in 1997,  to limit, by regulation, the quantity of citric one can add to vodka without altering the class and type.  A real bruhaha broke out -  not because the industry was devoted to the merits of citric in making the spirits more neutral, which was the only stated justification, but because they wanted the 5010 tax credits they got for the alcohol content of the citric addition.  Strangely, batteries of taste panels arrived at different conclusions.  Follow the money!

Disclosure - I'm not one who can find nuanced differences- the sort of yummy warmth Silk City described -  in any neutral spirits.  I've got the sort of taster that likes to eat jalapenos and things bursting with flavor because there is no way that I can taste chocolate, citrus, tobacco or grass in any glass of wine.  I'd wager that is true of a significant majority of us.  So I'm one who would reach for bottom shelf vodkas if I reached for any vodka at all.  If I wanted a little yummy warmth, I could add a pinch of sugar myself and sip it straight.  If I wanted citrus, I could add orange juice.  A pretty straightforward approach to getting flavor, aroma, and taste at a bargain price.

Further disclosure - I've not understand how, what most would call yukky whiskey when marketed as a craft spirit distilled to 189.9, becomes yummy vodka when distilled to 190.0.  But I do understand the need to justify price that can't be reduced by economy of scale.  I do understand that price creates perceptions.  I do understand the marketing of status.  I do understand locavore. 

I also understand that Smirnoff kicked ass in a blind tasting, by sophisticated palates, of otherwise  "premium" vodkas and I do know the history of how Grey Goose came to market.  

So, to the extent that you can "manage" consumer perception by claims that remind one of those found in reviews of wines and on the their labels and in their advertising, you've got a new way to market.  But, for all practical purposes,  there has been no change in the stuff that's in the bottle.  Distill to over 190, add nothing more, and describe it with all the puffery you want.  But add a harmless flavoring, coloring, or blending ingredient, other than the sugar and citric already allowed in §5.23, and you have a flavored vodka to which the rules for that standard apply. The change is not a license to all sorts of flavors.  It is a license to marketing claims.

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17 hours ago, Silk City Distillers said:

 

I’d argue some feedstock is almost impossible to really make completely neutral.  Cane sugar neutral for example, even after carbon treatment, still retains a rummy top note.

 

You haven’t tried my vodka!!  Spent 7 years getting it to go neutral. At least with Fiji cane sugar. 
 

now I have at least three ways to make it. 

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   I totally agree with silk city . Everything has its own detectable flavour hell hair spray ,boat gas and turbo yeast are very common flavour notes. We have same law up here but it is a law that would never stand up in court. I dont think there is a vodka on the market that a trained person couldnt taste and tell you what the mash bill was. 

 We learned a big lesson when we started marketing in eastern Europe. Eastern Europeans dont  favor north american vodkas because there is not taste in it , they refer to it as turn and burn. Great mixer if you mix ur drinks but most dont. 

 Its also interesting to note that alot of eastern European vodkas that are shipped to canada taste nothing like the same brand that is sold in the country it was made in . Weird huh

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I doubt anyone would ever give you any trouble if your vodka is coming off the still over 190P (in the U.S.). From what I understand many vodkas made at small distilleries aren't though.

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4 hours ago, adamOVD said:

I doubt anyone would ever give you any trouble if your vodka is coming off the still over 190P (in the U.S.). From what I understand many vodkas made at small distilleries aren't though.

Correct.  The "without distinctive" verbiage was largely without meaning.  As I said, TTB does not conduct taste tests. 

Re: less than 190 - Note that the production gauge (§19.289(d) and §19.304) is a gauge required by part 19, and so you must have a gauge record (§19.618(b)(1)).  That record will have to show the proof at the time you transfer it from the production account into either the storage or processing account.  If it does not shows that the spirits were 190 or more at the time of production, then the vodka was not a neutral spirit, i.e., it is not entitled to the vodka designation.  

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