Consumers may soon be able to sip Scotch flavored with faint hints of tequila, mezcal, calvados, Brazil’s cachaça, even Asian spirits like China’s grain-based baijiu, according to new guidelines just published by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the lobbying and marketing agency for the Scotch industry.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal in January of 2018, the beer and spirits giant Diageo approached the SWA asking to be allowed to finish some of their Scotch in casks previously used to mature Don Julio tequila. The agency turned down their request — but clearly the seed had been planted.
To qualify as Scotch, whiskey must be distilled in Scotland from water and malted barley (“to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added,” according to the legal definition of this esteemed spirit) and aged for at least three years.
That aging is to take place in what the regulations described until recently as “traditional oak casks” with “sufficient evidence of traditional use.” In the past, that mostly meant casks that had previously held sherry or bourbon. More recently, there’s been a trend towards using barrels that had been used to age such things as cognac, armagnac, port, madeira, various kinds of red or white wine, and even beer or ale — some of America’s most delicious beers would qualify.
The new guidelines are much broader, cutting the references to tradition and allowing the use of casks that had contained “wine (still or fortified), and/or beer/ale and/or spirits.” The only exceptions are examples of those liquids made from stone fruits or to which fruit, flavoring, or sweetening has been added after fermentation or distillation. This leaves the field open to virtually any other spirit that’s aged in oak casks.
Reposado and añejo tequila would definitely qualify. Now that some distillers are producing barrel-aged vodka and gin, those would presumably be on the table as well.
The SWA’s chief executive, Karen Betts, told the Sunday Telegraph that the new latitude in casks “strengthens our foundations into the future.” However, one of her predecessors in the post, Gavin Hewitt, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as maintaining that “Clearly if you had a whisky that tasted of tequila…it would not be Scotch.” And while you may choose not to drink it, investing in it might be a good idea, as rare whiskey is now among the assets you can invest in to make a lot of money.