Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Scotch Whisky Regulations – Reading Between the Lines

Recently at work we've been debating where to fit AnCnoc whiskies on the shelves. Partly, in truth, because the Highland shelves were over full, but partly also because the whiskies from Knockdhu distillery are fine examples of the classic Speyside flavour profile, even if it does say 'Highland' on the tin.

Now, prompted by some twitter chat regarding what constitutes Speyside, I've been having a read at the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (the SWR), and also the Scotch Whisky Order 1990 (the SWO).

The SWR gives a detailed geographical description of the Highland-Lowland boundary, and also defines the protected localities of Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. Speyside and Campbeltown are defined by refering to electoral wards, Islay is defined as the island of Islay.

The SWO is less particular; its definition of Scotch runs to just 175 words and doesn't mention anything at all about regions.

So here's my interpretation of these bits of legalese. It was always (or at least since 1893, with the Sale of Goods Act) the case that the label on a bottle of Scotch had to tell the truth – you couldn't label a bottle of Lowland malt as being from Islay. So it wasn't necessary for the 1990 order to specify regions because other legislation would effectively do the job.

But in order to give the same sort of protection to Scotch that is enjoyed by Parmesan, or Barolo, or Grand Cru Burgundy, it is necessary to follow the kind of geography based definition that's used by those other tasty products (PDOs or PGIs, if you're interested).

Hence the minutely detailed boundaries in the SWR-2009. However, since whisky making isn't like grape growing, the boundaries don't need to follow the line of a valley or a river, and so electoral districts are a handy pre-defined set of units to use.

However, the regulations had to be framed to accommodate existing practice. Macallan chooses to label its own bottlings as Highland, whereas Gordon & Macphail, for example, sell Macallan under the Speymalt name. Glenfarclas calls itself Highland; Tormore, just up the road, is 'The Pearl of Speyside'.

And thus, confusion reigns. It could be worse though. Burgundy is so complicated that people can't even agree on the number of appellations. Is it 300? 500? 700? And of course, there is an entirely separate debate as to whether regionality or terroir even exists in Scotch whisky, but I think I'll leave that one for another day....