When I wrote recently about liqueurs and the different rules governing how they’re made, I had a lot of people telling me how useful it was to see those guidelines spelled out. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding spirits and their differing rules, so I thought I’d have a go at putting down on paper the regulations for most of the major spirit categories. When we talked about this over a rum or two at b&t HQ, it seemed like a great idea, but then I started the research…
The problem I ran into right away was that every country seems to have their own set of regulations defining each type of spirit, which means to arrive at one definitive list of rules is nearly impossible. However, after a little research I’ve managed to compile some guidelines for each spirit category, and have written more straightforward interpretations for some of the confusing legal definitions that make up the ‘rules’. So if you’ve ever wondered what makes some gins ‘London Dry’ or have queried the difference between bourbon and scotch, here’s my attempt at unraveling some of those mysteries that make up the defining rules of spirit production. You might want to fix yourself a cocktail as this is one of the longer blogs I've written… and this is just part one!
I started by looking up the European Union regulations, just to get things rolling, but also recognised the need to dip into each category’s ‘native’ definition, as defined by their individual governing bodies. Well it wasn’t the lightest reading I’ve ever done, wading through legal speak and regulations, but (hopefully) in the end it was worth it. I’m sure there are experts in each spirit category who can throw further light onto my conclusions, and if I’ve got any of my facts wrong I suspect I’ll hear about it soon enough, but here are the rules and regs that define what you should expect when you open a bottle of your favourite spirit:
Whisk(e)y is a pretty huge category, and to try to get all the rules of every style of whisk(e)y produced around the world into one blog would be work enough for a month. So to simplify things I have taken a look at the rules governing Scottish and Irish whisky production as well as the two most popular styles of American whiskey.
The rules below apply to all whisk(e)y produced in the EU as well as products imported and sold under the name whisk(e)y within the EU. So when you think of Scottish and Irish whiskies, these are the rules that apply. There is an agreement in place with the US in relation to bourbon and Tennessee whiskies, so I have given them their own sections.
EU regulations state:
‘Whisky or whiskey is a spirit drink produced exclusively by:
(i) distillation of a mash made from malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals, which has been:
- saccharified by the diastase of the malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes,
- fermented by the action of yeast;
(ii) one or more distillations at less than 94,8 % vol., so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used,
(iii) maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks not exceeding 700 litres capacity.
The final distillate, to which only water and plain caramel (for colouring) may be added, retains its colour, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to in points (i), (ii) and (iii).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of whisky or whiskey shall be 40 %.
(c) No addition of alcohol as defined in Annex I(5), diluted or not, shall take place.
(d) Whisky or whiskey shall not be sweetened or flavoured, nor contain any additives other than plain caramel used for colouring.’
Simplified: Scottish and Irish whiskies are made by making a ‘mash’ of grains heated with water, which allows natural enzymes to convert starches into sugars. The sweet liquid is then fermented using yeast to produce a low alcohol liquid, which is then distilled to less than 94.8% abv. The distillate must be aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years, in barrels no larger than 700 litres. No additives other than caramel (to darken the liquid not sweeten it) are allowed and the spirit must be bottled at 40% abv or higher.
Base ingredient: malted grain, with or without other whole grains added.
Production method: distilled from a fermented ‘mash’ made from the base ingredients and distilled one or more times at less than 94.8% abv so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used.
Aged: Matured for a minimum of 3 years in wooden casks not exceeding 700 litres capacity.
Bottling strength: minimum 40% abv
Additives: No sweetening or flavouring allowed other than caramel used for colouring.
When it comes to whiskey production, bourbon has more rules and regulations than any other style, and while they are mostly not too dissimilar to the EU regulations, there are two or three differences that have a large impact on the finished product. The US regulations state:
(b) Class 2: Whisky: "Whisky" is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 160 deg. proof, in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80 deg. proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.
Note: While the common American spelling is "whiskey" (with an "e"), the B.A.T.F generally uses the spelling "whisky" (without an "e").
(1) (i) "Bourbon whisky" is whisky produced at not exceeding 160 deg. proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, and stored at not more than 125 deg. proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.”
Base ingredients: mixture of grains, but at least 51% corn.
Production method: distilled from a fermented ‘mash’ to no higher than 80% abv
Aged: Maturation of the final distillate at no higher than 62.5% abv for at least two years must take place in new oak casks. If aged for less than four years however, the age must be clearly printed on the label.
Bottling strength: minimum 40% abv
Additives: None allowed.
b&t notes: the important things to note when looking at Bourbon production methods are that the maximum distillation levels are lower than European regulations. This means that more of the flavour of the base ingredients are retained in the distillate. Also note the use of ‘new oak casks’, this leads to a sweeter, richer whiskey as the first use of the barrel allows the whiskey to pick up a lot of flavour from the natural sugars and vanillins in the wood. The most important rule though is that no additives are allowed, not even caramel for colouring. This means that all the flavour and all of the colour in the finished bourbon is a natural result of the production and aging processes.
This is more straightforward than the two above and can be clarified without the need for legal documents. Tennessee whiskey is simply whiskey produced in the State of Tennessee, however if it has generally come to be accepted that Tennessee whiskey is made using ‘the Lincoln County process’ whereby the distillate is filtered through maple charcoal before ageing. As this process changes the flavour of the liquid this is where it differs to Bourbon Whiskey. Other than this one difference Tennessee whiskey follows the same guidelines as bourbon.
Of course this list is not exhaustive, there are many other countries such as Japan and Canada producing their own styles of whisk(e)y but there’s only so much I can fit into one blog update! Don’t even get me started about Canadian Whiskey! Any country that calls its whiskey ‘rye’ but by law has no minimum rye content requirements, doesn’t deserve a section on the b&t blog (just kidding, Canada, I love you really!). Actually this is a whole other topic for another time.
Are you following so far? Good, then let’s look at another category!
Gin is once again a broad category, with many styles, definitions and strict regulations governing its production. So starting with the generic definition of gin, I’ve broken it down into its subcategories. If a bottle simply states that it is gin, for example, it must follow the rules stated below, but if it’s a ‘London Dry Gin’ then there are further regulations that apply, and so on with all the other styles.
European Union regulations state:
‘Gin is a juniper-flavoured spirit drink produced by flavouring organoleptically suitable ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37,5 %.
(c) Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as and/or flavouring preparations shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.’
Simplified: gin is a spirit made using a base of agricultural (usually grain) spirit, flavoured with juniper and other ‘botanicals’ in such a way that juniper remains the dominant flavour. Natural (or nature-identical) flavourings are allowed. This means that the minimum any spirit has to do to be called a gin is to take a neutral spirit and flavour it with juniper. Fortunately bottles stating that they are ‘distilled gin’ or ‘London gin’ have to follow slightly more rigorous production methods so tend to be higher quality products.
Of course not all gins are created equal, and the above only serves as a starting point for defining gin. Here is the next step in terms of regulations; distilled gin:
Base ingredients: Agricultural spirit of at least 96% abv, juniper berries and other natural botanicals
Production method: The base spirit (usually neutral grain) is redistilled in ‘stills traditionally used for gin’ in the presence of juniper berries and other natural botanicals in such a way that the juniper taste is predominant.
Aged: none required
Bottling strength: minimum 37.5% abv
Additives: Neutral spirits of the same quality as those used in the production process, natural flavouring substances and flavouring preparations may be added.
Simplified: this is the next step up from just plain ‘gin’ as the base spirit must be redistilled with the natural ingredients including juniper berries. This process will generally lead to a more balanced and flavourful product when compared to simply adding flavourings to the neutral spirit. However it is worth noting that due to the fact that other flavouring agents are allowed not all of the flavour comes from the distillation process.
Base ingredients: Agricultural spirit, juniper berries and other natural plant materials
Production method: gin whose flavour is obtained exclusively through the redistillation of high quality agricultural spirit, in the presence of all the natural plant materials used. Distilled to at least 70% abv and containing no sweetening beyond 0.1g of sugars per litre and no colourants or any other ingredients other than water.
Aged: none required
Bottling strength: minimum 37.5% abv
Additives: none allowed
Simplified: London gin (or London dry gin) gets all of its flavour through the redistillation of a neutral spirit along with natural plant materials and juniper berries. This process ensures a higher quality of finished product (generally speaking) than products labeled simply as ‘gin’.
This is simply gin produced in Plymouth, England. There is currently only one distillery in Plymouth and their signature style of gin is generally described as being somewhat sweeter and more earthy than London dry gin. The same basic production rules apply though.
Of all the ‘juniper spirit’ sub categories this one is the most vague as there are currently no EU regulations defining the production process. Instead it is simply accepted that historical methods define this spirit. The only rules in place are that it must be produced in either the Netherlands or Belgium, two regions in France or two areas of Germany.
Jenever is the original juniper spirit that gave rise to the more familiar London Dry style as the UK started to produce spirits based on the popularity of ‘Hollands gin’. Due to the use of Malt Wine as a base ingredient, jenever usually has a richer flavour profile with the malt flavour coming through as well as the pronounced juniper note.
Traditionally it was produced through the distillation of a ‘malt wine’ with the inclusion of juniper berries to give it its distinctive flavour. By comparison to London gin, jenever tends to be a richer more creamy spirit. There are two recognized styles; jonge (young) and oude (old), these names have nothing to do with aging, but instead refer to the old way of making Jenever using a pot still and thus producing a richer more flavourful spirit, or using more modern production methods to produce a lighter more crisp product.
Base ingredients: Malt wine, juniper, herbs and spices
Production method: base ingredients distilled using ‘traditional methods’
Aged: none required
Bottling strength: minimum 30% abv
Additives: no regulations but traditionally none.
So now we’ve looked at all things Juniper and Whiskey related let’s try getting our heads around the Cane Spirits…
It’s hard one to pin down the general rules for making rum as every country that makes it has its own definition of what rum is. The few things that are agreed however are that it must be made from either sugar cane juice or a by-product of sugar production such as molasses. The other two spirits in the family are Rhum Agricole and Cachaca which both use sugar cane juice as their base ingredient but follow different production methods to arrive at the finished spirit.
The EU defines rum as:
‘A spirit drink produced exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation, either from molasses or syrup produced in the manufacture of cane sugar or from sugar-cane juice itself and distilled at less than 96 % vol. so that the distillate has the discernible specific organoleptic characteristics of rum, or: a spirit drink produced exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation of sugar-cane juice which has the aromatic characteristics specific to rum. This spirit may be placed on the market with the word "agricultural" qualifying the sales denomination "rum" accompanied by any of the geographical indications of the French Overseas Departments and the Autonomous Region of Madeira.’
Simplified: Most rums are produced using molasses as the base ingredient, rhum agricole and Cachaca use the juice of the sugar cane instead. All three products must be produced in such a way that the flavour of the base ingredient is still present in the finished product, and as such Rum tends to be sweet and rich, whereas Rhum Agricole and Cachaca tend to be more vegetal in flavour.
Base ingredients: Usually molasses however sugar cane juice may be used.
Production method: varies from country to country however usually produced by distilling a fermented wash of molasses and water.
Aged: none required and age statements on rums are not defined by law so, vary greatly. In some countries age statements must reflect the youngest rums in a blend, in others there are no regulations.
Bottling strength: minimum 37.5% abv
Additives: EU regulations state that rum cannot be flavoured, no additives are allowed other than caramel for the express purpose of colouring the spirit.
What this means is that perhaps more than any other spirit category, rum varies greatly from country to country. Many of the traditionally Hispanic islands produce a lighter style of rum and favour solera style aging (or mingling old and young rums together during the aging process to keep the spirit lighter and more lively) and blending methods. This is by no means a definitive statement however as there are many exceptions… I was going to say to the ‘rules’ but actually there are no hard and fast rules to break. Former English colonies tended traditionally to make heaver and richer rums, but once again this varies from producer to producer.
Because of this flexibility in terms of production methods, rum is one of the most varied spirit categories and offers a huge range of flavours and styles. It also means that it is perfectly acceptable to produce very low quality products as well as great ones, so this category embraces everything from firewater to the nectar of the gods!
Once again, production methods, aging requirements and specific sugar cane varieties that can be used, vary from country to country. Martinique, for example, has it’s own very tight regulations for what may be labeled rhum agricole, however there are other countries that produce products outside of these regulations and are free to call their products by the same name. Below is a general summary of the methods followed to produce rhum agricole:
Base ingredients: sugar cane juice (in some countries only specific varieties of cane are allowed)
Production method: Fermented sugar cane juice is distilled, usually to a high abv (around 70% - 80%) before being cut with water and either rested or aged in wooden barrels.
Aged: 3 months minimum
Bottling strength: traditionally ranges from 40% abv up to 55% however there are stronger rhum agricoles available.
Additives: as there is not one binding set of regulations in place for all countries this is impossible to definitively state that there are no additives in any rhum agricole, however traditionally no additives are used and certainly in Martinique it is expressly forbidden.
Simplified: rhum agricole differs from other cane spirits in the fact that it is made from fermented cane juice that is then distilled to a high abv. Unlike cachaca (which also uses the juice but usually distilled to lower strengths) it tends to be a fiery, lively spirit full of vegetal aromas and flavours and has the sweetness you would expect from a sugar cane spirit.
Brazil’s native spirit, cachaca, is produced by distilling fermented sugar cane juice, much like rhum agricole, however it is traditionally distilled to a lower abv and is bottled between 38% and 48%. Distinguishing the differences between these two spirits seems to be an area of debate in the drinks industry but cachaca can only be made in Brazil and has its own unique set of laws governing production.
Base ingredients: fermented sugar cane juice
Production method: Sugar cane is pressed, usually within 24 hours of harvesting, and fermented right away. The fermented juice is then distilled before either being aged or bottled as an ‘industrial cachaca’ un-aged.
Aging: Industrial cachaca is un-aged, however aged cachaca must spend a minimum of 1 year aging in wooden barrels.
Bottling strength: 38% abv – 48% abv
Additives: up to 6g of sugar is allowed per litre to allow correction of natural sweetness in the finished product. Sulphuric acid may be added to the sugar cane juice to adjust the Ph levels to encourage fermentation.
Simplified: Brazil’s native spirit, cachaca, is produced simply by fermenting and then distilling freshly pressed sugar cane juice. The production methods lead to a relatively low alcohol distillate that retains much of the fruity, grassy flavours of the base ingredient. No aging is required and quality of product varies greatly from producer to producer.
Having wrapped up the ‘cane spirit family’ I think this might be a good point to bring this update to an end. Three spirits categories are enough for one blog… I’ll have vodka, brandy and agave spirits for you next time so be sure to check back with us… in fact why not sign up to our mailing list so you never miss another update?