New Regulations in the Scotch Whisky World
If you are familiar with the function of our five senses, you know that we are wired to easily perceive variations, movements or changes. So, when a new regulation in the Scotch whisky world was adopted mid-June 2019, after years of immobility, the perception of this quite small variation had a massive impact and we must therefore talk about it. Let us dive into a detailed analysis to figure out if this movement is important or trivial.
Let’s start by the beginning: founded in 1942, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is a group of producers, distributers and owners of the Scottish whisky world all working together to promote, protect and represent the industry around the globe. Its members represent 95% of the production.
The rules of crafting Scotch whisky are well defined through the laws of the United Kingdom and in the European Union, and the SWA closely monitors them; this association presents itself as the protector of the authenticity and the integrity of the product by guaranteeing its credibility around the world. Also, it protects against producers that could be tempted by short term profits instead of preserving the sustainability of the industry.
But, for certain market players, the association also limits the evolution of the product by imposing very strict descriptions of what is a Scotch whisky and how it should be produced. Indeed, for the past few years, many are looking for relaxations on the types of casks that can be used to age the precious distillate.
The official reason for this change is not clear, but the facts are that the amendment to the regulation concerning the maturation process of the product was deposited to the legal entities and, after acceptation, is now in force since mid-June 2019.
In a concrete way, this amendment allows for a larger possibility, or at least gives a better definition of the casks that can be used for aging of Scotch whisky, and for the finishing touches which can occur a few months to a few years after the initial aging process.
Thus, following this new text, a Scotch whisky cannot be aged in casks that contained fruits such as peaches, apricots, cherries, dates or plums or in casks of beer or wine that have been altered after the fermentation by adding flavors or sugars, and, finally, in distillated alcohol casks that were not filled following the traditional method (for more details, view the original text and the updated version at the end of the article).
The main objective of these rules is to avoid using casks that have tastes that stray too far away of the traditional tastes of Scotch whisky. Also, since the rules prevent the addition of ingredients or artificial flavors, it is normal to require that the casks used also do not contain any.
The last sentence of the regulation is extremely important and will allow the association to have discretionary room for maneuver against those that would push the boundaries of experimentation too far: “Regarding the type of cask used, the Scotch whisky must have the color, the taste and the typical aromas of a Scotch whisky”.
So, in the end, the producers can experiment with casks, but it cannot denature the product. Knowing that 80% of the odors and flavors of a whisky come from the casks in which they aged, it is going to be quite the challenge for the authorities to enforce this new regulation. Since taste is subjective, if I was a producer, I would ensure that I am seen positively by the SWA before investing in “goofy” experiments.
In the facts, many producers of whiskies did not wait for these changes in regulations to experiment with Tequila, Mezcal and Calvados casks.
The producer of Calvados Guillaume Drouin, of the maison Drouin, winner of the best European spirits producer in 2013, mentioned that he had already sold casks of Calvados to Scottish distilleries such as Arran, Springbank, Dalmore and Kilchoman. The Swedish distillery Mackmyra is also on the list of their partners. To be continued!
We can question the reasons behind this regulation change, but we can also easily imagine that it is the result of a very big pressure coming from the increasing amounts of quality whiskies offered around the world in the last 20 years (India, Taiwan, Japan, Sweden, Canada, United-States, France, Germany and Scotland). The need to offer more liberty to the marketing and producing teams in the creation of new products was key in ensuring that Scotch whisky does not become an “old” product anytime soon.
I firmly believe that the regulation defining Scotch whisky is a good thing for the industry. If someone wants to experiment or create another product, it is perfect! But he must also assume the fact that his product is not a Scotch whisky and, therefore, he must accept that the product cannot benefit from the well-known reputation of Scotch whisky around the world.
The change that happened in June 2019 did not completely disrupt the industry, but when everything is immobile, the simple movement is that much more perceptible. Technically, we won’t see, any time soon, a wave of whiskies aged in casks of « liquor of goat milk ». I believe that in the next few years, some products and certain editions will be labeled as aged in less traditional casks or from blended whiskies that will contain Calvados and Tequila in their blends.
I am also ready to bet on the fact that this is already the case without us knowing, because the regulation on Scotch whisky does not require the divulgation of casks… but all this is an other story and whole other battle.
Here is the original text that defined the Scotch whisky, before June 2019:
Most casks will previously have been used to mature other alcoholic beverages: some, for example, will have contained Sherry, and some will have contained American Bourbon Whiskey.
Here is the amended paragraph of the text now enforced since June 14th 2019:
The spirit must be matured in new oak casks and/or in oak casks which have only been used to mature wine (still or fortified) and/or beer/ale and/or spirits with the exception of:
- wine, beer/ale or spirits produced from, or made with, stone fruits;
- beer/ale to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after fermentation;
- spirits to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after distillation and where such previous maturation is part of the traditional processes for those wines, beer/ales or spirits.
Regardless of the type of cask used, the resulting product must have the traditional colour, taste and aroma characteristics of Scotch Whisky. These requirements also apply to any finishing as referred to below.