By Ian Buxton

The flavour challenge

Commentator, consultant and writer Ian Buxton's latest book 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die is released on July 5
As students of the international drinks scene will know, flavoured spirits seem to be growing. Whether it’s mango or bubble-gum vodka the craze seems unstoppable.

What’s more, it’s affecting whisky. From Canada we have Revel Stoke Spiced; from the USA Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey, Jim Beam Honey and Black Cherry; and from Ireland the recently-released Bushmills Irish Honey. All feature a get-up very similar to that of the parent brands but are typically described as “infused with real honey” or “a blend of whiskey, real honey and other natural flavors.”

Flavors? The spelling gives the game away, of course. For the most part, these products are designed for the US market and they are aiming to bring new drinkers into the parent brand. So what is Scotch doing about all this? Should it, in fact, do anything?

In theory, purists have nothing to fear. According to a spokesman for the SWA: “If one adds flavourings to Scotch whisky, or indeed any whisky as defined in the EU Spirits Regulation, that product is no longer Scotch whisky or whisky; it is a new product based on Scotch whisky and whisky and must be described and labelled accordingly.

“Even if the industry and the UK Government wanted to change the definition of Scotch whisky to allow the use of flavourings, it could not do so, as flavourings are prohibited in whisky under the EU Spirits Regulation. Furthermore, any change to EU law requires to be negotiated with the 27 member states.”

Legally then, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Bushmills Honey are all Spirit Drinks. That’s the correct term under EU law and you should find it somewhere on the labelling. Though a lawyer might argue it should be rather more prominent, these are large and sophisticated companies, so if “Spirit Drink” is tucked away on a back label and not emblazoned on the front you can assume they think everything will be fine even if an especially pedantic Trading Standards officer picks up a bottle.

But these things are getting closer to home. The iconoclastic fellows at Spencerfield Spirits have just released their Sheep Dip Amoroso Oloroso which is described as “a twelve year old whisky which has nestled in Oloroso Sherry casks in Jerez in Spain for nine years.”

Apparently it was distilled in Scotland in 1999, matured in Bourbon barrels for three years and then shipped to Sanchez Romate in Jerez who racked the whisky into Oloroso Sherry butts to mature for a further nine years. It was then shipped back to Scotland to be bottled.

But, after its long Spanish holiday and as tasty as this may be, it isn’t legally Scotch whisky. It’s also a Spirit Drink.

I don’t think anyone is fooled though. The Sheep Dip, Beam, Bushmills and Jack Daniels’ offerings come with bottles and labels clearly based on the parent brand and trade off the strength and reputation of the original whisky. If you search on line the term Spirit Drink doesn’t really feature. Curious that.

But someone clearly thinks there’s a market here. So how long before we see a Johnnie Walker Honey; a Ballantine’s Spiced or a Famous Grouse Perthshire Berry.

It’s not as if this couldn’t be dressed up as the ‘traditional practice’ so beloved of elements in the whisky business. After all, nearly 80 years ago, Neil M Gunn could eulogise in Whisky & Scotland of “fragrant berries (and) heather honey … of so exquisite a flavour that a world grown economically sane could never have enough of it” and his contemporary Aeneas MacDonald wrote of Highland Bitters, Caledonian Liquor and Highland Cordial, whisky-based Spirit Drinks all.

So come on Scotland! Dust off the recipe books, raid the bee hives and get to work. We can’t wait another 12 years for the next Amoroso Oloroso and we can’t let the Irish, Canadians and Americans have all the glory.

Scottish Spirit Drinks! They’re what the world is waiting for.