ColumnsThe Collection

‘Spirits can be creative, but they also need to follow the rules’

Joel Harrison explores the different regulations imposed upon some of the world's most famous spirits, and asks whether breaking the rules leads to brilliance or disaster

Words by Joel Harrison

The Collection

The English Premier League is one of the biggest sporting contests in the world, with a reputed audience of more than 3 billion people a season. What draws these viewers in is 90 minutes of the unknown, a play with no script, a freewheeling tournament in which even the very best can, and often are, beaten. Yet the jeopardy that attracts spectators is built atop a strict set of rules.

Aside from the actual laws of the game, each club receives a 666-page document at the start of the season, outlining the exacting standards to which their club must abide – from the size of the font used on shirts, to the wattage of the stadium floodlights. Hidden away behind the curtains of football’s theatre, they nonetheless ensure that the customer experience – be it at the ground or on a TV screen in Hong Kong – is consistent and engaging.

chateau montifaud cognac making
Cognac has some of the spirits world's most complex regulations from the type of acceptable grapes to the casks used for maturation

The world of distilled drinks has its own myriad rules, depending on which style of spirit you’re making. For a bottle to be labelled ‘whisky’, it must be distilled from grains and aged for at least three years and a day in oak. Brandy, by contrast, must be produced from grapes or other fruit, and not always matured. Vodka has the widest launchpad, able to be sourced from anything fermentable as long as it is distilled to a high degree of alcohol.

Drill down into these broad categories, and you’ll find examples where the rules are stricter. Cognac, a subcategory of brandy, has a huge and complex set of regulations, covering everything from the type of acceptable grapes, through to the casks used for maturation. It is Scotch whisky, however, that has the most dictatorial handbook. Yet Scotch boats arguably the widest array of flavours of any spirit – from the smoky earthiness of Islay whisky, through to the lighter, heathy tones of Lowland Scotch, balanced with the rich, Sherried, nutty notes from the Highlands and Speyside regions.

Despite the bureaucratic regulations, this diversity has also garnered Scotch an audience in the billions – more than 1.3bn bottles of exports in 2021, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, whose strict rules seemingly provide a foundation of trust, honesty and authenticity on which the category’s success is built.

‘Rules are there to be broken’ is an adage that is supposed to encourage creativity – but those rules have to be learned first

Other parts of the whisky world don’t have the same rigour. Japanese whisky remains unregulated, though some producers favour a charter (not a law, note, unlike the Scotch whisky regulations) that governs aspects as wide as honesty on age statements, through to openness about where, exactly, the whisky has been made (not necessarily in Japan, it turns out).

The world’s largest ‘whisky’ market – that is, based on sales of bottles with the word ‘whisky’ on the label – is India. But this liquor is not whisky as we know it. Indian whisky, or IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor), often starts with a base of neutral alcohol and adds other spirits, such as single-malt whisky, on top. It cannot, as a result, be sold in the UK, EU or the USA as whisky.

‘Rules are there to be broken’ is an adage that is supposed to encourage creativity – but those rules have to be learned first. Two Scotch whisky companies that do this rather well are boutique blending house Compass Box, and single-malt renegade Bruichladdich. In both cases, regulations prevent them from revealing the specific make-up of each assemblage on their packaging. Instead, they provide a breakdown on their websites, giving drinkers a deeper understanding of their craft, while avoiding sanction. Bruichladdich even includes the bottling date, the number of casks and types employed in their batch of single malt, the ‘vintage’ of each cask, and the source of the barley used.

Bruichladdich whisky cask
Bruichladdich's website even provides information on the barley provenance of each bottle

This farm-to-facts honesty might not sound particularly rebellious, but in the general scheme of rules and regulations that surround Scotch whisky, it is positively punk in approach, and adds a level of detail that keeps fans coming back.

The more creative distillers, blenders and bottlers get, the more excited I am about the future of what has hitherto been mired in an image of heather and weather, stags and bagpipes. All within the rules, of course…

Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.