America on Single Malt

We’ve had some really interesting feedback from one of our articles about what constitutes a single malt. One of our last articles here was basically raising a point about residue left over from previous casks. Essentially if distillery A buys a refill cask from distillery B then there will be a little of distillery B whisky left soaked in the wood. That spirit will then mingle with distillery A spirit during maturation and so can you really call this a “single malt”. Surely a wee bit of distillery B and a whack of distillery A is technically a “blended malt”.  That’s kind of the point I was trying to get people thinking about. Anyway….

cover3_ds

This all lead on to some amazing responses from people on Twitter and a little investigation about the laws and regulations of what constitutes a single malt in North America….

DownloadedFile

Thanks to Bob Caron on Twitter we’ve now learnt that in America if you want your whisky to labelled as a “single malt” you MUST use virgin oak to mature your whisky. You are NOT allowed to use a cask that has been used to store or mature whisky previously (a refill cask). UNLESS you are making single malt in Scotland, Ireland or Canada. If you are from one of those countries and making single malt according to the laws of those countries THEN you can use a refill cask to mature your whisky AND label it as “single malt” in America.

Got that? Yeah it confused me the first time too.

So if you’re from Canada, Scotland or Ireland – keep calm and carry on. It’s business as usual as long as you are playing by your own countries rules – you’re in the club! There’s a bit of confusion, however, regarding Japan. They don’t seem to be in the club? Wales, er maybe… but England certainly not… and here’s the article that Bob lead us to originally published by Whisky Advocate which details some of that confusion.

mackmyra

If you happen to be from Indian like Amrut or Sweden, like Mackmyra, you’ve got problems. Because only these three countries (Canada, Scotland and Ireland) are allowed to use refill casks. Mackmyra have pointed out to us that Sweden is not exempt from this strange law. So even though they can sell their single malt everywhere else across the globe they can not legally sell their whisky as a single malt in the United States as they do not use virgin oak casks to mature their whisky. If they wanted to sell it in America it would have to be labelled as, now get this, “Whisky Distilled from Malt Mash”. Hmmmm tasty.  So despite the whisky being made EXACTLY the same way and from the same ingredients, what it can be called is determined by what it is stored in. Now that is slightly nuts. (Let’s not even get into the fact that French whisky Brenne and Armorik are sold as single malts in the States).

And the same ruling applies to American Single Malt producers too. If you are making malt whisky in America then it HAS to be matured in a NEW virgin oak cask to be called “Malt Whisky”.

Ok now this where it gets both interesting and even more confusing so hang on….

Oak barrels_WEB

Although the Scottish Whisky Association are fairly strict about cask maturation there is nothing in the rules to stop you maturing in virgin oak, first fill or refill casks. The rules are very clear that it must be oak, on maximum size of the cask and the minimum amount of time it must remain in the cask.

Balcones-barrels

However, in America there are NO time limits on how long malt whisky must remain in that cask. Nothing. See if you can find it. Chip Tate at Balcones certainly can’t find it.

So if you want to be labelled “malt whisky” rather than “whisky distilled from malt mash” stick your new make in a virgin oak cask for a tiny amount of time (let’s say the time it takes to smoke a nice cigar!) before transferring it to a used oak cask. Boom. I’m a Single malt now thanks.

In fact the only time limit constraint is if you want to label your whisky “straight” then it must sit in the cask for two years. (This may be an aside but we couldn’t find any mention of where that cask should be located for it’s maturation period – For Scotch it HAS to be matured IN Scotland for it’s full maturation period – you CAN NOT move it out of Scotland and mature it elsewhere – the minute you do, it NO LONGER becomes a Scottish single malt – but in the American regulations there didn’t seem to be anything regarding it’s maturation location).  

malted-barley

What is also slightly strange to those raised on the Scottish model of whisky production, is that an American Malt Whisky can be made from a minimum of 51% Malted Barley. (Understandably this follows the same rules laid down for all the various types of American whisky i.e. Bourbon = 51% Corn, Rye = 51% rye, Wheat = 51% wheat). But in Single Malt production that we are familiar with in Scotland it would seem at odds to have any other ingredient OTHER than malted barley in the mashbill.

So my American Single Malt mashbill can be 51% malted barley and then the rest made up with corn or wheat – or what in Scotland would be classified as grain. Now in Ireland a combination of unmalted and malted barley in the mashbill is known as Pot Still Whisky – but this is separate category in itself and one that is (now) unique to Ireland. And although you mix grain whisky and malt whisky to create a blended whisky at the end of the process – I’ve never heard of, and doubt it has ever happened, of distilling from a mixed grain/malt mashbill in Scotland. I’m not even sure it would actually be legal to do so? Does anyone know???

Wow, my American Single Malt is just a little bit crazy yeah? Oh but hang on. There’s one last thing. And it concerns this notion of “single”. You know “single” as in from ONE distillery. There’s NO reference to “Single Malt” in the regulations. Only “Malt Whisky”. There is no legal definition for “single malt”. Why? And now this is where it’s going to blow your head..

After looking through the paperwork that Mackmyra sent us about the classification of different spirits in the US one other thing did really stand out.

america-50-states

And that is, if your Bourbon (or corn, rye or malt) is labelled Straight, then not only does it have to be matured for two years or more BUT (and here it comes) it is allowed to be a mixture of two or more straight whiskies provided they are made in THE SAME STATE. Not from the same distillery. But from the same state!!!!

Just imagine if you could apply this to Speyside in Scotland!

We would like to thank Bob Caron for his comments on our original article that lead us down this path. And large thanks to both Mackmyra Distillery in Sweden for forwarding the relevant web-links regarding the US law and also to Chip Tate at Balcones for sharing his thoughts and insights about the situation. We would welcome any comments, reactions and any corrections to where we may have misinterpreted the regulations. But we’ve had a real long look at them!

SOURCES

The original article from Whisky Advocate that got us thinking:

http://www.whiskyadvocateblog.com/2010/12/03/and-you-wonder-why-whisky-companies-dont-import-their-whisky-to-the-u-s/

Then the TTB site which Mackmyra directed us to:

http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam.shtml

In particular Chapter 4 is the real interesting part of the document as it really shows the explanations behind the definitions. Pages 4-2 to 4-5 are the most interesting!

http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter4.pdf

PICTURE SOURCES

Beverage Alcohol Manual: www.ttb.gov

American Flag; belleadonna.wordpress.com

Mackmyra logo: www.whisky-pages.com

Oak casks: www.kilgraney.com

Balcones barrels: www.edibleaustin.com

Malted Barley: www.whisky-pages.com

States of America: mybirdie.ca

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About whiskysheffield

Society for Whisky drinkers and malt enthusiasts in Sheffield.
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4 Responses to America on Single Malt

  1. bobcaron says:

    What a rat’s nest I opened up. All that because @Whiskylassie had a Mackmyra bottle that said single malt in Canada and mine didn’t in the US. I was concerned that I wasn’t drinking the same beverage but Angela at Mackmyra set me straight, sort of. The whole whiskey/whisky mess is even more confusing than that here in the USA. Nice post.

    • Thanks for pointing it out Bob. It’s been fascinating finding out all about it. I’m sure there’s more to uncover and it will be interesting to see if the rules change any time in the future.

  2. Chip Tate says:

    As unnecessarily complicated as many countries make their own laws about whisky production and labeling, I sincerely wish that we could all simply accept each other’s classifications in a reciprocal fashion. That is, if a whisky is made in the Sweden and labeled “malt whisky” in conformity to the EU’s regulation on the labeling of single malt, that every other country accept Sweden’s definition of single malt as acceptable for SWEDISH single malt and so forth. So long as each producer conforms to the laws of his or her own land, that should be enough so long as the country of origin is clear, it seems to me.

    Wouldn’t that be easier? I’m just saying.

    • That would seem the most sensible and easiest option. And perhaps the one that is easily enforceable, understandable, mutually agreeable and probably most cost effective – especially for the producers – (having to relabel for each territory is just going to be a huge and unnecessary expense for a small producer).
      However, I can see why countries would want to create their own definition of “malt whisky” for either consumer protection or to protect the sales of their own countries producers against competitive imports.
      For instance, some countries have yet to codify what actually legally constitutes “malt whisky”. India makes a lot of “whisky” out of molasses (ok so there’s no mention of “malt” in there but I reckon for the average consumer it’s more about the “whisky” part rather than the “malt”) Also I could see why the Scottish Whisky Association could get into a flap about the fact that there is no minimum time limit for cask maturation in America, as it’s a direct threat to the 3 year rule. Domonic Roskrow makes this point, in a little more detail than I can write here, in this recent interview with Whisky Marketplace here: It’s around the 24 minute mark. (http://www.whiskymarketplace.co.uk/podcasts/008)
      But this thing cuts both ways. Whilst American law says you can’t add any colouring agents to American whiskey it’s perfectly legal within the EU to do so. So I’ve actually seen Bourbon that’s been imported into EU and then colouring has been added to it! “Mit Farbstoff” reads the legend on the label. And it’s being sold side-by-side naturally coloured American whiskey.
      As a consumer you’d kind of have to know all those differences to make any sense of it.
      On the other hand, all the other drinks categories don’t have these issues and don’t seem to suffer. Rum is made from sugar. Gin is, well vodka with botanicals, and vodka is er.. just a white clear spirit with varying degrees of fancy packaging(!?!). There doesn’t seem to be as many rules to protect or define these spirits as there is with whisky.
      In the end, it should always be about the quality of the product, and I think that whatever label you stick on it – the quality of the drink will always shine through.

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