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Scotch whisky guardians roll out new barrel options

In a rare change to the rules governing how Scotch whisky can be made, it can now be aged in barrels previously used for tequila and other spirits.

Part of what makes Scotch such a beloved spirit is the tradition behind it. And like many protected products around the globe, that heritage hasn’t been maintained by mistake.

Distilleries in Scotland have to follow specific rules if they want to call their whisky “Scotch whisky”. And yet, selling spirits is a business, and sometimes, sensible changes are the smart way to stay competitive.

Along those lines, the official definition of Scotch has gotten a slight tweak — though it’s a big enough change that it could lead to some innovative new takes on the spirit.

The Scotch Whisky Association has amended the Scotch Whisky Technical File — the document which defines Scotch’s Geographical Indication status — to both clarify but also broaden the types of barrels that Scotch whisky can officially be finished in.

Previously, the rules simply stated that Scotch had to be finished in “traditional oak casks” with “sufficient evidence of traditional use”.

This vague guidance has now become more specific, with the new language reportedly stating:

The spirit must be matured in new oak casks and/or in oak casks which have only been used to mature wine (still or fortified) and/or beer/ale and/or spirits with the exception of:

  • wine, beer/ale or spirits produced from, or made with, stone fruits
  • beer/ale to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after fermentation
  • spirits to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after distillation

and where such previous maturation is part of the traditional processes for those wines, beers/ales or spirits.

Regardless of the type of cask used, the resulting product must have the traditional colour, taste and aroma characteristics of Scotch Whisky.

As the website Scotch Whisky points out, the change opens up some new possibilities while closing off others.

For instance, Diageo had reportedly been attempting to broaden the definition of Scotch to allow for a tequila barrel-finished version of the whisky. That will now be allowed.

But meanwhile, Scotch producer Glen Moray recently released a cider cask-finish whisky. That spirit couldn’t be called “Scotch” when it was released, and the new, more explicit guidelines hammer that fact home.

“A wide range of wine, beer and spirit casks have been used over the years to mature Scotch whisky, and clarity about what is allowed under the law should be provided in the Scotch Whisky Technical File,” says Alan Park, SWA director of legal affairs.

“The amendment is consistent with the continued use of all those categories of casks where there is evidence of longstanding traditional use in the industry.

“But it will also create more flexibility, particularly in the range of spirits casks which can be used, subject to a number of safeguards which protect the reputation of Scotch whisky.”

Previously, the generally accepted list of approved casks included Bourbon and other whisky, grape brandy — including Armagnac and Cognac, rum, fortified wine (including Sherry, Madeira, Port and Malaga), still wine and beer/ale.

Other barrels could only be used if the producer could provide evidence that it had been traditionally used in the past.

Now, under the new definition, other casks that can be used include agave spirits (including Tequila and mezcal), Calvados, barrel-aged cachaça, shochu and baijiu, as well as some other fruit spirits.