As you may or may not be vaguely aware the better part of the whiskey made in the US – that’s bourbon and rye for the most part – is defined in Federal regulations. So, as a consumer, you know what you’re getting. Scotch whisky may be more tightly defined than US whiskey, but the extent to which spirits production is regulated is essentially a political decision and, in the Land of the Free, the presumption is for a light touch. However, there are rules and woe betide the producer who ignores them.
But what about that bottle of ‘American Single Malt’ which you may have seen? Today around 100 smaller ‘craft’ distillers are producing a product thus labelled and it turns out there is no legally binding definition at all. In theory at least, the ‘single malt’ declaration on a bottle of US whiskey may not mean very much at all. However, behind the scenes, work is in hand to change all that.
At the 2016 Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans, some 60 single malt producers got together to agree some guidelines and, surprising themselves, came up with a working definition quite quickly. So, they decided to form the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC) with a goal to “establish, promote, and protect the category of American Single Malt Whiskey”. It’s an exciting example of collaboration from a group of folks who might be considered natural rivals.
A pilot group of 12 began to formalise these rules, borrowing from Scotch but adapting the definition to reflect US practice. For example, American single malt is to be the produce of a single distillery; located in the US; and made 100 per cent from malted barley.
So far, that’s familiar. But the proposed definition doesn’t restrict production to the pot still – other still types may be used, as long as the spirit doesn’t exceed 160 proof (80% abv). The thinking behind this is to ensure that the essential character of the original malt is preserved. The malt can include roasted barley and barley that has been malted over Pacific peat or mesquite smoke, emphasising that the suggested rules are an attempt to provide a degree of discipline and consumer reassurance without blocking the innovation of the distiller. Innovation and experimentation is, after all, a major motivation and raison d’être of the craft distilling movement, so the rules had to tread a careful path that would help, not hinder.
Discussions then began with the US Treasury, which was in any event minded to revise the relevant Federal regulations. The ASMWC met with government officials who were apparently receptive to the proposals. However, since the election of President Donald Trump, progress has slowed.
“Politics aside, whenever there is a [presidential] election, there’s a change in priorities in the Treasury Department,” said Matt Hofmann, head distiller at Seattle’s Westland Distillery. “It’s fallen down the list of priorities, but ASMWC continues to push it forward.”
I believe we should wish them well. Collaborative working of this kind suggests a new maturity and responsibility in the US craft distilling community that can only be of benefit to the industry and to the drinkers of their products. It marks a coming of age and an acceptance that the consumer is entitled to clear and consistent labelling. While a completely laissez-faire attitude may have some superficial appeal, the long-term health of the category is better served by a degree of common practice that permits experimentation, but within a broadly understood framework.
There’s no clear timetable for when the proposed rules might be finalised, let alone passed into law. But it’s an encouraging and positive move that I believe is good for all, because this has been a murky area.
As we have seen in previous columns, major distillers are now taking a keen interest in the craft sector. In some cases, they are simply buying their smaller rivals or alternatively launching brands that appear to be the product of a boutique distillery but, in fact, hail from somewhere rather larger. There have also been celebrated cases of ‘craft spirits’ originating from the giant Midwest Grain Products (MGP) distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
The proposed new regulations are a welcome move to transparency – and something other world whiskies might consider.
You can find out more about the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission here