Richard Woodward

Richard Woodward

Diageo's recent court victory in the Vodkat "passing off" case has brought the world of spirit regulations into the headlines. But, according to Richard Woodard, two more low-profile announcements have arguably even more long-term significance for the category at large.

Unless you're an IP lawyer, a geek or an insomniac, you probably haven't paid much attention to the recent regulatory changes announced for Scotch whisky and Cognac.

But, besides keeping a bunch of legal experts off the streets for a few months, these lawmaking tweaks are crucial to maintaining the strength and distinctive nature of these spirits categories - they could also serve to teach others a valuable lesson.

I'll spare you the full details of The Scotch Whisky Regulations (2009/2890) introduced in late November, but the gist is that they set out labelling rules for Scotch sub-categories like blends and single malts, and give added protection for geographical descriptors like Speyside and Islay.

The changes were sparked by the Cardhu affair, when the industry was split by Diageo's decision in 2003 to redesignate the single malt as a "pure" or blended malt to keep pace with demand.

Diageo backtracked on its plans, but the furore swept away the idea that Scotch could be governed by convention, rather than enshrined in law.

The importance of the new regulations, however, goes further than preventing corporations from bending the rules to their own ends. For the first time, the legal framework governing Scotch whisky is contained in one consolidated, comprehensive piece of legislation.

That's crucial for an industry reliant on exports to far-flung destinations such as the US, Japan and China, because it makes it easier for overseas courts to find out just what is and is not permitted. Bear in mind that the Scotch Whisky Association is involved in about 70 legal actions around the globe at any one time.

The changes in Cognac are less root and branch, specifically giving the category the status of a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in China, its second biggest market behind the US.

Beside the kudos of being the first non-Chinese product to be granted PGI status, Cognac now has overt legal protection in what will soon become its biggest market - again, a crucial move if the category is to fight off fakes and retain its distinctive, prestigious character.

Different as they are, the thinking behind the regulatory changes for both Cognac and Scotch share a single motivating factor: multi-million dollar industries cannot be ruled by conventions and vague legal classifications.

There's a lesson here for drinks categories in general - and for a couple of sectors in particular. Step forward Tequila and gin.

Some Tequila purists argue that the mixto category - which combines at least 51% agave spirit with cane spirit - shouldn't exist at all. Tequila owes its distinct character to the agave, they say, and nothing should be allowed to dilute that.

Fair enough - but wrong. It's a bit like saying all Scotch whisky should be made using barley, because that's what makes single malt special. Think of mixto Tequila as blended Scotch - and, as with blends, there are some excellent mixtos out there - and the "problem" disappears.

But there is a problem, and it lies with the label. While Scotch now clearly distinguishes between blends, malts, etc on the bottle, with a mixto Tequila there's nothing to tell the consumer that nearly half of what's in the bottle has been nowhere near an agave plant. Sure, 100% agave Tequilas are often labelled as such, but the overall regulations remain inadequate for true consumer clarity.

Now for gin. The European Spirit Regulations cover three types: standard gin, distilled gin and London gin, with the rules tightening as you move up the quality ladder.

London gin, however, is a bit like Cheddar cheese, in that it's designed to be a guarantee of a certain quality and style, rather than a geographical designation. In practice, most of it originates from well outside the capital.

And that might be fine, but for a product like The London Gin. Because The London Gin, produced in the capital for Gonzalez Byass, is not a London gin at all. Stylistically it might be fine, but it's a pale blue colour - and colouring is prohibited in London gin. Which, to be frank, is utter nonsense - but Gonzalez Byass have rebranded it as 'The London No. 1' as a result.

Then there is the broader definition of all types of gin. These have to be at least 37.5% abv and made from ethyl alcohol flavoured with juniper. Specifically, the rules say that juniper must be "the predominant flavour".

Hmmm. Defining spirits categories on subjective perceptions of flavour profile is woolly at best, and a rogue's charter at worst. Who's to say that product X does or doesn't taste mostly of juniper? How are we supposed to measure it in the first place?

The picture is confused further by the recent spate of new entries into the premium gin sector. Most of these, I would argue, have used botanical innovation to breathe new life into a stagnant market. Take Hendrick's combination of cucumber and rose petal, Whitley Neill's mélange of baobab and Cape gooseberry, or G'Vine's use of grape flowers.

But - and this is crucial - they still taste like gin, whether that's down to the juniper or not. Some of the newer entrants to the market, however, can't say that. By pushing the botanical envelope past the point of no return, they have parted company with gin as we know it and, in the process, become nothing more than flavoured vodka by another name.

The result is an attack on gin's very identity, threatening its distinct character in the longer term and blurring the lines between it and the vodka category. Does gin really want to take on vodka head-to-head? I think we all know how that would end. And loosely-worded regulations will have played no small part in the matter.