Changing the law

Changing the law

A rule amendment brings clarity to the cask maturation debate

News | 12 Jul 2019 | Issue 161 | By Christopher Coates

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The rules governing the legal description of Scotch whisky have been amended, in order to give distillers clarity on the types of oak casks that can and cannot be used to mature Scotch whisky. The change was delivered in response to ‘a growing number of enquiries as to the type of oak casks that can be used.’

Following a public consultation by the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the amendment was made to the technical file governing the Geographical Indication (GI) for Scotch whisky held by the European Commission and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), ‘is now law.’

Karen Betts, chief executive of the SWA, said: “This amendment provides clarity and some additional flexibility on the range of casks in which Scotch Whisky can be matured. The change is consistent with Scotch whisky’s heritage and traditions, and strengthens our foundations into the future.”

Alan Park, director of legal affairs at the SWA, said: “The global reputation for the quality and origin of Scotch whisky has been built over many decades, aided by strong legal protection. The legal requirements are vital to protecting the reputation and quality of the world’s premier spirit which millions around the world know and love.”

The key changes relate to the use of casks that have previously been used to mature ‘beer/ale and/or spirits’ and the passage explicitly stipulates that such casks are only permissible in instances where cask maturation forms part of the traditional production process of that drink.

Alan Park continued: “A wide range of wine, beer and spirit casks have been used over the years to mature Scotch whisky and clarity about what is allowed under the law should be provided in the Scotch Whisky Technical File.”

“The amendment is consistent with the continued use of all those categories of casks where there is evidence of longstanding traditional use in the industry. But it will also create more flexibility, particularly in the range of spirits casks which can be used, subject to a number of safeguards which protect the reputation of Scotch whisky.”

The implication of these changes is that distillers will now be able to utilise cask types over and above those which are accepted to have been traditionally used to mature Scotch whisky. Many non-traditional oak cask types will now be explicitly permissible – such as those which previously held agave spirits such as tequila or mezcal, or fruit spirit such as calvados. However, the change comes with some additional caveats: namely, restrictions on the use of casks which previously held drinks made with or from stone fruits and those to which flavouring or sweetening has been added after distillation.

Critically, the resulting spirit must, regardless of the cask type used for maturation, still adhere to the traditional colour, taste and aroma of Scotch whisky ‘in order to meet the purpose of GI protection of the reputation of traditional product.’

The key passage of the new definition is reproduced in full below:

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. Casks must be empty of their previous contents prior to being filled with Scotch whisky or with spirit destined to become Scotch whisky.

Scotch Drinks Verification Scheme – technical guidance (Scotch Whisky verification) from June 2019.
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