The Scotch Whisky Association

The Scotch Whisky Association: A group of people who try to protect the integrity and interest of Scotch whisky around the world. Or, as they say:

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) promotes, protects and represents the interests of the industry in Scotland and around the world.

In current times they are getting a lot of flak for what they are doing, but also quite some credits. What they do from my point of view:

  • Try to ban fake ‘Scotch’ from being sold.
  • Protect what can be called Scotch whisky.
  • Guard what can and cannot be done to produce whisky.

Johnnie WorkerIn a way, I am very glad that such an organization exists. I don’t think it’s quite that important within Europe, since the rules of what can and cannot be sold as Scotch whisky are pretty clear and quite strict. In other parts of the world where counterfeiting products is a more valid business plan, it is far more important. ‘Scotch’ whisky in a can produced in Panama, fake ‘Johnnie Worker’ in China. Such products are sued on copywright and trademark infrigement.

They also try to make rules about what can and cannot be called whisky in Europe. This is where my enthousiasm is decreasing rapidly. They have decreed (and gotten their decree into law) that spirit has to mature for at least 3 years, in an oak cask, in Scotland, bottled at no less than 40% ABV and be made out of grains. For single malt it has to be only barley, and be produced in a pot still. There are also some rules about ABV at the moment of distilling and casking.

What I don’t like is that they also decree what can be done during maturation, which woods can be used and such. A whisky producer is not allowed to use anything else than oak. You cannot add staves to the cask, you cannot use other wood types, you cannot infuse with any other ingredients.

The famous story of Compass Box’s ‘The Spice Tree’ with added staves to the cask seems strange. You cannot add other ingredients, I accept that partially. But a stave is not an ingredient. It is an agent for maturation. It is taken out after maturation. It is still a cask in which the whisky matures. I see absolutely no harm in that. Stranger still is the fact that something completely foreign like colouring caramel (e150a) is allowed.

Then there is Loch Lomond. They have produced Single Malt whisky in a copper still (the old definition) since they opened. Since 2008 the law has changed (thanks to the SWA) from a ‘copper still’ to a ‘copper pot still’. Loch Lomond uses a copper column still. So a brand that produced Single Malt is all of a sudden no longer producing that. What the hell is happening there?

Blended Malt is another one of these weird things they’ve been able to push through. It used to be called Pure Malt, or Vatted Malt. This because it was a vatting of malt whisky. You have single malt, and blended whisky. Now, something that everybody was perfectly okay with has to be called blended malt. A combination of the term which is confusing more people than it helps.

I find that all this nitpicking is prohibiting innovation in the Scotch whisky industry. Almost all innovation has been in wood management with weird casks being used. This is particularly true since most Scottish distillers are terrified of not being able to put the word whisky on a label (Compass Box Orangerie excluded).

Something else that’s strange: While they are killing most agreeable plans within Scotland, they seem to have absolutely no problem with the French (or Corsican) P&M Pure Malt Whisky, which is made from a beer mash that includes chestnut flour. Technically that isn’t whisky, and even further from the definition of malt whisky.

Copper FoxIn the USA there are similar rules which in some cases are even more strict, but there the companies are less terrified of the whiskey stigma. Wasmund’s produces Copper Fox Rye. Not Rye Whiskey, mind you! They use refill barrels (not allowed) and apple wood chips (not allowed). What they then do is just not call it whiskey. Problem solved. Highly interesting product (I’ve ordered a bottle from here). Jim Beam does the same with their Red Stag (Black Cherry infused) and Wild Turkey does this with their Sherry Signature.

So in the end I’m not sure whether the SWA is a good way to go. They do a lot of good work but I think they should focus on banning fake and counterfeit products, the misuse of the word Scotch, but not try to prohibit innovation. I think the Scotch whisky industry is in some points far too focused on traditions from 200 years ago. This is of course not only the SWA’s fault, but they’re a big part of it.

Then there is also a lot of discussion that the SWA is more or less an extension of Diageo’s wishes and focuses too much on the benefits to the mega corporations. I don’t like that idea either, but don’t have any concrete examples of it.

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About Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer

I'm a web developer at Emakina. I'm highly interested in booze, with a focus on whisk(e)y and beer. I like to listen to loads of music and read an occasional book. I'm married to Anneke, have a daughter Ot and a cat called Kikker (which means Frog, in Dutch). I live in Krommenie, The Netherlands.
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13 Responses to The Scotch Whisky Association

  1. Billy Abbott says:

    When John Glaser talks about the Spice Tree saga the reason the SWA gave for not allowing the maturation process was that it wasn’t traditional. Tradition as far as the SWA is concerned seems to be stuck some time in the 1970/80s, which is nice. That said, apart from the annoying fringe activities that they are noticed for they do solid work behind the scenes in trade negotiation and the like. Unfortunately that’s the boring bit that noone really ever sees…

    • I find that even weirder than the ingredient bit which I read somewhere else. Who decides what is traditional? Strictly, there being a watchdog isn’t traditional and ages ago (when tradition/industry started) there wasn’t any aging.

      But yeah, they do loads of good stuff too.

  2. Alex G says:

    Cant European companies follow the same tactic as the Americans by just not calling their product “whisk(e)y”? Let the SWA keep control of the whisky term, but distilleries can otherwise innovate to their hearts content?

  3. Really enjoyed your post here. Some good things and some bad things with these laws on Scotch whisky. In fact it inspired me to write my own blog on the subject. Thanks again

  4. Pingback: Laws For Single Malt Whisky Production - A Good Thing or Bad? | Single Malt Whisky Shop | Whisky Online | Whisky Exchange

  5. Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy said: “It is vital that we protect our key industries. We cannot allow others to trade off our good name and to pass off inferior whisky as being produced in Scotland.

  6. EricH says:

    A few years ago Bruichladdich put out a product called Celtic Nations which was a blend of Bruichladdich and peated Irish whiskey. Yes, peated Irish whiskey from Cooley. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s fine because the SWA essentially told Bruichladdich they couldn’t do that and the product was discontinued. So they’ve also banned the blending of whiskies from different countries.

    The funny thing is Maker’s Mark took the original process behind Spice Tree and made Maker’s 46. And just last month High West Distillery released Campfire a blend of bourbon, rye, and peated Scotch whisky (distillery not disclosed). So if you want to break the rules, you should try experimenting with American whiskey.

    • EricH says:

      Oh it looks like there are a few bottles of Celtic Nations still floating around because the Whisky Exchange has it in stock.

    • I knew about that one but didn’t think of it before. Another weird account on international blending. It was done before, mostly between Irish and American though. I know that it still happens a bit in America indeed. Also South African distillers blend with Scotch.

  7. Pingback: What is a ‘single cask’ whisky? | Malt Fascination

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