Sunday, March 23, 2014

Old Ren's Vanilla Flavor Conundrum

I've been drinking and thinking about Old Ren quite a bit lately since my blog post a couple of months ago and something has begun to bother me.  Is it possible that professional magician and founding-father of Texas IBM magicians Ring 15, Ren Clark, could have slipped an adulterating flavor into Old Ren as a parlor trick of some sort?  Well, banish the thought, Old Ren was bottled in bond in a government supervised and bonded warehouse - right?  But nosing and tasting Old Ren I have a very clear sense of vanilla extract riding on top of some good bourbon.  Vanillins are a natural flavor component of bourbon because of the requirement that bourbon be aged in new charred American white oak.  American white oak, in particular, is loaded with vanillins.  This fact would make the addition of vanilla extract a really great prank to play on bourbon drinkers.  The vanilla would hide exceedingly well, produce a remarkable flavor profile, and make a real conversation piece.  However, in one of the few blog posts out there that describes bottle maturation using references to peer reviewed scientific papers, Whisky Science's article about bottle maturation specifically mentions a build up in vanillin over long periods of bottle maturation:

Look at those colors again...
"Most phenols oxidize slowly, usually forming polyphenols, resulting in diminished astringency and probably less peaty whisky over years of bottle storage. An exeption in the phenol group is vanillin, which increases slowly independently of the oxidation/reduction state." (emphasis mine)

"Independently of the oxidation, tannins and antocyanins form bigger molecules, which stabilize the colour and usually turn reddish colours into orange, bricklike hues. Oaklactones tend to partially transform from trans- (spicy, incence) to cis-isomers (coconut, vanillin) in the bottle."

Later on it adds:

"Most likely the bottle maturation of whisky is more reductive than oxidative, producing more fruity, aetheral, peachy, vanilla, petrol, rubbery and metallic notes and less phenolic, bitter spicy and citrus notes. Rancio flavours might arise from pentose sugars derived from caramel colouring and/or a very extractive charred cask."

Old Ren has been resting in glass since the Spring of 1944 - exactly 70 years now.  That's long enough for bottle maturation to have full play.  This underscores the notion that this is just regular unadulterated Bourbon that has had the vanilla notes naturally accentuated by many decades of natural bottle maturation.  Indeed, vanillin's role in the flavor profile of Bourbon normally is part of what makes Bourbon good - and this aspect of bottle maturation - might explain the seductive flavors of old dusty Bourbon in general.  Vanilla sweetness enhanced, other rougher flavor compounds rounded out by gradual molecular breakdown and slow oxidation.  Plus that bit about pentose sugars and rancio.  That sounds a lot like what tastes good about dusty Bourbons in general.

So there's not much point wondering about vanilla in Old Ren...  But then I noticed something.  Look at that odd pattern of red squares just above the words "Bourbon Whiskey" on the label:

The word "Straight" has been cancelled out by a counter stamp of red squares.
Close examination of the pattern of red squares shows that the word "Straight" was printed above "Bourbon Whiskey" and was subsequently cancelled by a counter stamp printing of red squares.  Why didn't I notice this before?  Why would the bottlers of Old Ren do that?  I can't help but get the feeling that this is an acknowledgement of some kind of hanky panky.  

Let's look at the laws again:

§5.22   The standards of identity.

(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.
(1)(i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.
(iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whisky”, “straight corn whisky”, and whisky conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as “straight whisky”. No other whiskies may be designated “straight”. “Straight whisky” includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.

There's nothing about flavorings in there at all.  The term "Straight" specifically applies to aging for 2 years or more.  It's an age requirement; not a purity requirement.  The law governing the nomenclature for Bourbons having flavorings appears further down:

(5)(i) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) is a mixture of straight whiskies which does not conform to the standard of identify for “straight whisky.” Products so designated may contain harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a).
(ii) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky, and not conforming to the standard for straight whisky, shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “a blend of straight rye whiskies” (blended straight rye whiskies). “A blend of straight whiskies” consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky shall include straight whisky of the same type which was produced in the same State or by the same proprietor within the same State, provided that such whisky contains harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as stated in 27 CFR 5.23(a).
(iii) The harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials allowed under this section shall not include neutral spirits or alcohol in their original state. Neutral spirits or alcohol may only appear in a “blend of straight whiskies” or in a “blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky” as a vehicle for recognized flavoring of blending material.

§ 5.23 Alteration of class and type.(a) Additions. (1) The addition of any coloring, flavoring, or blending materials to any class and type of distilled spirits, except as otherwise provided in this section, alters the class and type thereof and the product shall be appropriately redesignated.(2) There may be added to any class or type of distilled spirits, without changing the class or type thereof, (i) such harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as are an essential component part of the particular class or type of distilled spirits to which added, and (ii) harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials such as caramel, straight malt or straight rye malt whiskies, fruit juices, sugar, infusion of oak chips when approved by the Administrator, or wine, which are not an essential component part of the particular distilled spirits to which added, but which are customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage, if such coloring, flavoring, or blending materials do not total more than 21/2 percent by volume of the finished product.

So the law pretty clearly specifies that the presence of an added flavor, like vanilla (or a color - such as e150), would require that the label say "A Blend Of Straight Bourbon Whiskies".  That's not what the label says here at all.  The cancellation addresses the age statement portion of the label - not the presence of additives.  If vanilla were added, the word "Straight" would be A-OK.  The words "A Blend of" would have to be added.  The Bottled In Bond strip specifies the age of the whisky in detail - so there's no legal reason for the word "Straight" to be taken out.  I find the cancellation a fascinating detail that mystifies me.  But, there's not much point speculating further.  We will probably never know.  If you have any more information or suggestions on such label cancellations and what they mean I'd love to hear more. 

Of course, Ren Clark wasn't a regular guy like you or me.  He was a professional level magician.  I can't help but wonder if Ren might have played a trick on everyone, even the bottling company, with an act of sleight of hand...

Update:  several folks have made the point that the laws governing the nomenclature of "Bourbon", and "Straight Bourbon" were different prior to 1964.   I'm looking into what the applicable laws were in 1944.
Sku posted a close reading of the laws back in 2011 and wrote:

"This is really the same issue as with ageing. Straight whiskey may not contain any coloring or flavoring, but no such restriction is imposed on whiskey that does not carry the "straight" designation, 27 CFR § 5.23(a)(3)," ... "However, the TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual states that bourbon of any kind (not just straight) cannot contain coloring or flavoring. The Manual is not an official regulation, but it is a guideline as to how the TTB interprets the regulation..."

This certainly implies that canceling the "straight designation might have been an attempt to approve an additive.

However New York lawyer and whiskey enthusiast Dan Zimmerman retrieved old copies of Title 26 of the Internal Revenue Tax code (26 USC Sec. 5233 (1964) and 26 USC Sec. 2903-2904 (1940)) which governed these things back in the day and has performed a close reading and it seems that the Bottled In Bond act provisions trump those distinctions. Here is Zimmerman's close reading of the older statutes directly quoted from his e-mail. I'll find a way to post images of the old legal statutes (probably as image files) later:

"(1) The Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) that Steve links in his blog (tracing through my link above) states that the TTB (formerly ATF) views the "bourbon" designation as precluding coloring or flavoring additives. I agree with Steve's statement that the BAM is an agency interpretation, and this restriction does not seem to appear on the face of the regulations in 27 CFR. Going farther, I am not aware of when this interpretation was adopted and it is possible that in 1944, when the Old Ren was bottled, this restriction would not have been interpreted the same way for non-"straight" designated whiskey, as noted above in connection with the 1955 ruling. The BAM is at:

(2) The coloring and flavoring regulations now in 27 CFR 5.23 and 5.29 would, by their literal reading, allow up to 2.5% of "harmless" colorings and flavorings, except for "straight" whiskeys. These were in section 5.22 and 5.38 (1961); and 5.21(g)(5) and 5.38(c) and (d) (1938). The language of these provisions does not seem to have changed substantially over this period. However, as noted below, the BAM interpretations restrict some flavoring and coloring additives that a literal reading of the regulations suggest may be permitted. In the past, the interpretations may have been different, but such informal interpretations can be very difficult to research, as noted above.

The present regulations say, in relevant part:

§5.23 Alteration of class and type.

(a) Additions. ...

(2) There may be added to any class or type of distilled spirits, without changing the class or type thereof, (i) such harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials ... if such coloring, flavoring, or blending materials do not total more than 21⁄2 percent by volume of the finished product.

(3) “Harmless coloring, flavoring, and blending materials” shall not include (i) any material which would render the product to which it is added an imitation, or (ii) any material, other than caramel, infusion of oak chips, and sugar, in the case of Cognac brandy; or (iii) any material whatsoever in the case of neutral spirits or straight whiskey, except that vodka may be treated with sugar in an amount not to exceed 2 grams per liter and a trace amount of citric acid. [However, the BAM interpretations above also preclude additives for "bourbon", even if not straight, so this statement is not interpreted with its literal meaning.]

§5.39 Presence of neutral spirits and coloring, flavoring, and blending materials.

(b) Coloring materials. The words “artificially colored” shall be stated on the label of any distilled spirits containing synthetic or natural materials which primarily contribute color, or when the label conveys the impression that the color is derived from a source other than the actual source, except that:

(3) If no coloring material other than caramel has been added, there may be stated in lieu of the words “artificially colored,” the words “colored with caramel,” or a substantially similar statement, but no such statement is required for the use of caramel in brandy, rum, or tequila, or in any type of whisky other than straight whisky. [However, the BAM interpretations above also preclude additives for "bourbon", even if not straight, so this statement is not interpreted with its literal meaning.]

(3) Straight Bourbon. As you note, the straight bourbon requirements are in 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(iii) presently and were in 5.22(b) in 1961 and 5.21(b) in 1938 (copies attached, these are the two closest dates I found to the 1944 bottling date). On their face, the "straight" regulations for bourbon are generally an age requirement, since the current BAM interpretations extend the prohibition on coloring and flavoring to bourbon generally, not just to straight bourbon.

(4) Bottled in Bond. The bottled in bond regulations and statutory provisions, on their face, seem to preclude any flexibility that could be gained by removing a "straight" designation.

Current 27 CFR 5.42(b)(3) sets out requirements for bottled in bond labeling. Chiefly:

(i) Composed of the same kind of spirits produced from the same class of materials;

(ii) Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery;

(iii) Stored for at least four years in wooden containers ...;

(iv) Unaltered from their original condition or character by the addition or subtraction of any substance other than by filtration, chill proofing, or other physical treatments (which do not involve the addition of any substance which will remain incorporated in the finished product or result in a change in class or type);

(v) Reduced in proof by the addition of pure water only to 100 degrees of proof; and

(vi) Bottles at 100 degrees of proof.

This provision tracks statutory provisions that appeared at 26 USC Sec. 5233 (1964) and 26 USC Sec. 2903-2904 (1940) (copies attached). I have not exhaustively searched, but it looks like this requirement has been moved out of the tax code and into the TTB regulations in the past several years. In any event, all of these provisions substantially express the common understanding of the requirements imposed by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. In particular, additives should be prohibited."

Bottom line: the fact that it's Bottled In Bond should prevent any additives - even back in 1944.  And this should obviate any need to cancel out the word "Straight".  This remains a mystery which doesn't make any legal sense.


  1. Fascinating. As I'm reading your blog, I'm thinking to myself, there's no way those red squares are on my bottle. Opened the photo on my iphone and sure enough, there they are. I cannot believe I didn't notice those before! Thanks for the details and background on this topic! Richard Millang

    1. Right? I didn't see it either at first - for a long time. Have you cracked one of yours? Do you get the malt extract / vanilla bomb flavor profile? I'd love to hear some tasting notes from the handful of other people who ended up with bottles of this rare stuff.

  2. Yeah, I'm half way through my bottle. I tend to drink my rare whiskies pretty quickly. The nose instantly reminds me of the 2013 Pappy 20 year. Uber rich caramel and oak with a touch of pungent Elmer's glue (in a good way). The mid palate is super thick and mouthcoating. The finish is just waves of caramel, marshmallow sauce, subtle mint notes, buttered popcorn and just a kick of heat on the tail end. After approx 90 secs, my palate is full of nuttiness that just lingers. I love this bourbon! As to your point about the potential vanilla bomb/extract theroy, I'm not so sure given what happens to old bottled whiskies this old, but I'm not ruling it out completely. Fun topic!

  3. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through your posts regarding Old Ren....most especially because "Old Ren" was my Great Uncle.

    I was only 9 years old when he passed away at the age of 86, yet I can still fondly remember seeing him every Thanksgiving, and the joy we both got from sitting at the table while food was cooking, as he went through countless little slight-of-hand tricks, card tricks, coin tricks....each performed just as flawlessly as they ever were. I still have a few mementos of his, including a box with a few of his magic tricks in it, and typed instructions on how to perform them (I still can't get some of them down...)

    At any rate, I would love to be able to procure a bottle of Old Ren to add to my collection of family mementos. Do you happen to know of any collectors who would be willing to sell a bottle of it, or any place I should be looking for one to pop up for sale/auction? Many thanks!

    1. Andy - I'm jealous you had such a cool uncle. His personality comes through loud and clear in the Ft. Worth papers and the Magicpedia. I suspect the Bourbon was a lark or a bit of marketing, but in my prior post about it I speculated that he picked a mature bottled in bond selection because he must have loved Bourbon. In any of your recollections of your Great Uncle do you ever recall seeing Ren enjoying a drink? Do you recall if it was Bourbon? (and the trifecta...) If so, was he having it neat? On the rocks? With soda?

      Last autumn Bonhams auction house in New York sold 12 bottles of Old Ren. I, personally know where a few of these bottles reside (in the hands of private collectors of excellent standing). The rumor is that the consignor was in Old Ren's family too (and somehow ended up with this part of the estate) and had more, which could end up in a future auction. Joe Hyman of Bonhams handles their American whiskey auctions and would be in a position to illuminate that topic or at least notify you if lots of Old Ren come up: he is at joseph.hyman[at] Remember that Old Ren Bourbon was a one-off private bottling run. Thus the bottles coming out of this particular consignor are probably the only ones in existence. Old Ren is special not just because of the man Ren was, but also because they are the only bottles of whiskey produced at the Graham distillery in Rockford Illinois that I am aware of. Although, as I make clear above, I'm not certain whether Ren might have spiked these bottles with vanilla or not!

  4. As a young lad of 7 or 8, he could have been drinking bourbon or tea, and I wouldn't have known the difference. I remember him being an affable man who was eager to please and took joy from providing entertainment and happiness to those around him, so I could imagine he'd want his whiskey enjoyed however the imbiber wished to enjoy it, be it neat, on the rocks, or otherwise. Ren came from a staunch Southern Baptist background, so I'm not sure the rest of his family would have even known that this stuff existed! It certainly would not have been welcome in my grandma's house on Thanksgiving! :)

    Thanks for the tip on Bonham's. I'll keep my eye on their site and maybe a bottle will turn up. I might drop Joseph a line too. I'll also check around with family I haven't seen/talked to in a while and see what might still be floating around amongst the family. Even if it's an empty bottle, it would still be great to have (though I'm eager to try it after reading your notes on it.) Thanks!

  5. In trying to figure out the Old Ren mystery my main questions are 1) why Bourbon? Why not vodka or gin or rum? 2) why very mature Bottled in Bond Bourbon (the most expensive kind) rather than the popular cheaper blended Bourbons of the time, and 3) why THAT Bourbon (i.e. Grahams of Illinois). In my main post about Old Ren ( I review the case. Ren owned a famous Tiki bar in Ft. Worth that served libations in the now-extremely-collectible "Severed Head" mugs. This puts Ren in close contact to the vanguard of the rum-based Tiki cocktail culture. But Ren had bought this Bourbon run in the decade before the Tiki bar. The year of bottling corresponds with the year Ren was on the cover of Genii magazine - a huge honor. This gives the bottling the feeling of a celebration. The choice of Graham Distillery of Rockford Illinois seems clearly related to the fact that Ren lived in Rockford during the period this whiskey matured there. Perhaps Graham only offered BIB? Perhaps Ren purchased a barrel and it was simplest to bottle a single barrel as BIB? Perhaps Ren spent more because he wanted to the BEST to celebrate his ascendancy in the magic world and to represent the "brand" of his persona? We may never know. Given the eventual Tiki connection, I wondered whether the choice of Bourbon was a personal predilection of Ren's or was just the "flavor of the moment" in the early 40s. No matter. Anyway - a fascinating and compelling man and a fascinating and compelling and rather tasting bottling of whisky. E-mail me at josh[at] and I'll arrange for you to get a taste of the whiskey and I'll help keep a look out for a bottle for you - either empty or full. Personally, I'm going to keep my empty bottle as this story is too near and dear to my heart to part with it.

    1. An old thread, but the reason why prior to some time in the 60s, just about all American whiskey was BIB was that unless it was stored in a special government-controlled warehouse under bond, tax had to be paid when it was made. Now, all distilleries have bonded space on site, but that was not always a requirement. And at the time the Old Ren was made, the law said that whiskey could only be bonded for 8 years before tax had to be paid, so a 7.5 yo barrel was about the oldest juice a distillery was likely to have on hand.

    2. Excellent point, Chris! I hadn't connected the earlier shorter BiB period with the age of this whiskey but it's correct and makes perfect sense.