The folks at Compass Box have put together the following Q&A to help people understand some of the key aspects of the new Scotch Whisky Regulations that were voted into law in 2009 and for which some key regulations come into force on the 23rd of November 2011.
What is the first thing I should know about the new Scotch Whisky Regulations?
First, a bit of background: In 2009 the U.K. Parliament passed a law known as statutory instrument no. 2890, or the "Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009" to revise and expand Scotch whisky legislation. The law encompasses many aspects of production, labelling and the marketing of Scotch whisky. While the law was passed in 2009, some aspects, such as those regarding labelling, allowed a two year transition period for producers to comply; this period ends on November 22nd of this year.
How was the law created?
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) was the driving force behind the creation and content of the legislation, as well as having it presented to Parliament. The SWA is a trade organisation that represents the Scotch whisky industry and its member Scotch whisky companies. (Compass Box is not a member.)
Were any parts of the new law contentious?
Several parts of the new law generated considerable debate amongst Scotch whisky producers and the SWA, in particular, the names of the five categories of Scotch whisky. When the law was being drafted, we at Compass Box argued for a different classification and naming scheme than the one that has been adopted. (You win some and you lose some.)
What are the five categories of Scotch whisky that the new law spells out?
The “Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009” define five different categories of Scotch Whisky:
"Blended Malt Scotch Whisky"—where did that term come from?
Until this law was passed, there were no legally binding definitions for all the different categories of Scotch whisky. Scotch whisky producers had no oversight in how they described or labelled their whiskies. No question about it—some regulation around the labelling of the different categories of Scotch whisky was needed to keep drinkers from being confused.
"Blended Malt Scotch Whisky" is the new name for what have traditionally been called "vatted malts" or "pure malts". These two terms have been in use since at least the 19th century in Scotland. Whisky producers today use the terms to refer to a whisky made from two or more single malt whiskies.
This style contrasts with what is traditionally known as "blended Scotch whisky" which refers to a whisky made from one or more single malt whiskies and one or more single grain whiskies. Blended Scotch whisky represents by far the most common style of whisky bottled each year in Scotland, over 90% of the output of the country.
When the SWA was designing the new law before having it presented to Parliament, they decided that the term "pure malt" should be prohibited completely from use in both packaging and marketing because they believed consumers would confuse it with single malt. The SWA also decided that because the term "vatted malt" was not understood by most consumers a new name was needed for this category of whisky.
"Blended malt Scotch whisky" was what they decided to use. While we could still refer to the term "vatted malt" in our marketing materials, we cannot use it on our front labels to identify the type of the whisky, as we have in the past.
Isn’t there a risk that people may confuse "Blended Malt Scotch Whisky" with "Blended Scotch Whisky"?
That’s exactly why we’ve embarked on this education effort! We believe this risk does exist, so we want to teach people what the names mean. As a company that produces both blended Scotch whiskies and blended malt Scotch whiskies, we have a particular interest in this and we want to help.
By the way, can you explain the differences between malt whisky and grain whisky?
Malt whiskies are distilled from 100% malted barley and are distilled in pot stills.
In Scotland, Grain whiskies are distilled from either wheat or maize (corn), depending on the distillery, with the addition of a small amount of barley, and they are distilled in a continuous column still.
Malt whiskies are made in a range of styles, from light and perfumed to big and smoky. There are over 90 malt whisky distilleries operating today in Scotland. Grain whiskies are distilled to a much higher strength than malt whiskies and as a result are lighter in style. There are currently seven grain whisky distilleries operating in Scotland.
A single malt or single grain whisky refers to a whisky made at a single distillery.
So when does all of this have to change?
The new law stipulates that the new names for the five categories of Scotch whisky have to be used on front labels from the 23rd of November 2011 to identify the type of whisky in a bottle. From then on, the terms “vatted malt” and “pure malt” will no longer be permitted for this use.
So how does the new law specifically affect Compass Box?
Firstly, the new names for the five categories mean that we have had to change the labels of most of products. Our vatted malts must now be labelled as “blended malt Scotch whisky” and our vatted grain whiskies must now be labelled as “blended grain Scotch whisky”.
Secondly, the new law is very strict about the use of age statements on labels and in marketing materials. As we often blend whiskies of significantly different ages, we have in the past stated on back labels and our website the exact percentages of each of the whiskies in a recipe, including the ages of the whiskies. This is no longer permitted. According to the new law, the only age you can mention on a label or in marketing materials is that of the youngest whisky in the recipe.
We can understand why the writers of the law wanted this regulation--to keep unscrupulous producers from misleading consumers that a whisky is made primarily with very old components, when in fact the old components comprise an insignificant proportion of the recipe. However, prohibiting full disclosure of the exact percentages of different whiskies along with their ages seems a bit heavy-handed. (Our opinion.) But the law is the law and we will have to live by it unless someone decides to change it.
What other things does the new law cover?
The law encompasses many areas, including manufacture, marketing, movement of Scotch whisky to other countries, use of distillery names, geographical indications, maturation, age statements and more.
For more detail:
1) If you’re really interested in the subject, here is a detailed memorandum produced by the UK government explaining their rationale for each of the components of the new law:
2) The SWA has also published this document explaining some of the key aspects: