Should spirits play by the rules?

The majority of distilled drinks are tightly bound by strict regulations, but they would benefit from loosening up and letting more creativity in, argues Joel Harrison

Words by Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison
When it comes to distilled drinks, rules can ensure consistency but also stifle innovation, says Joel Harrison

I’ve always struggled with baking. Too many rules to learn, and the slightest slip can turn custard into scrambled eggs. Baking is a science. Cooking, on the other hand, is much more of an art – and much more my thing. I embrace the Jamie Oliver method – a splash of this and a dash of that – and so long as the result is hot and tasty, I don’t have to worry so much about any rules.

In the world of distilled spirits, however, rules are integral. They provide the structure by which certain denominations of distilled drinks platform themselves, and allow us as critics and consumers to judge their output. We know, for example, that a Scotch whisky has rested for a minimum of three years in an oak cask in Scotland. We are assured by the fact that Cognac is produced from a set selection of grapes grown in a defined region. We take solace in the knowledge that Tequila must come from Mexico.

Rules help. Rules define. Rules give structure. But do they need to be quite so hard and fast?

Where science relies on rules, art thrives on freedom, and the two are not comfortable bedfellows

The distillation and maturation of a great spirit is true alchemy, the middle of the Venn diagram where art and science come together. But where science relies on rules, art thrives on freedom, and the two are not comfortable bedfellows.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, but without creative freedom, invention is severely limited. Freedom is the naughty auntie of invention; rules, the wicked uncle. How then can we find creativity within the strict rules of many of the world’s most popular distilled drinks?

The answer is to be found, as with most disruptors, on the fringes. To find the true artists at a festival, you don’t go to the main stage, you explore the fringe tents. The fringes are for the avant-garde, where rules are bent, subverted, and, ultimately, where change is activated.

But where is the fringe in the world of spirits? Where are the avant-garde distillers effecting change in the old guard; the challengers to change, causing the revolution that speeds up the evolution?

When it comes to spirits, it’s all about widening your view. Take whisky. Scotch is widely acknowledged as having the strictest regulations in the world. Legal documents guide the process under the watchful eye of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) which spends its time, when not promoting the spirit around the world, ensuring that the regulations are adhered to. It is this work that gives Scotch such reliability, such a premium place in the world of drinks, but also such rigidity; a members’ club with a dress code rather than a beach party where anything goes.

Yet widen your view of malt and into focus comes Irish whiskey, a spirit that can be made in exactly the same way as single malt Scotch, as well as using other, more varied styles of ingredients and distillation, and is bound by fewer regulations, leading to a greater degree of creativity.

Take the most recent releases from Irish whiskey brand Method and Madness, which bottles, legitimately, a whiskey matured in mulberry casks, something not allowed in Scotch. Method and Madness has built a reputation as something of an art-house producer when it comes to maturation in unusual wood, and its lauded series of releases includes whiskey rested in French chestnut and acacia wood.

Method and Madness whiskey – spirit rules
The Method and Madness range of Irish whiskeys uses innovative, unconventional woods that bring new flavours to the spirit – should Scotch be doing the same?

Efforts such as this by sideways-thinking non-Scotch whisky distillers yielded a change in the SWA’s rules, in part driven by the frustration of Scottish whisky producers at the lack of creativity open to them compared to their counterparts around the world. In 2019 the Scotch whisky regulations were loosened with regard to the range of oak casks in which Scotch could be matured. A small victory for art over science, for freedom over rules.

And herein lies the rub: Scotch is recognised around the world as a leader not just in whisky, but in quality spirits, because of the strict rules that govern it. Scotch whisky is the hole in a doughnut, only existing because of the ring of regulations around it. Take that away and you move from a doughnut to a bun fight.

Thankfully, when it comes to drinking whisky, be it innovative art-house Irish, or strictly produced Scotch, there are no rules, and it is here, in the glass, where creativity is truly given freedom to roam. Ice, no ice, neat, in a cocktail… Less baking, more cooking, in other words – and that is where the fun lies.