We need to talk about Australian whisky regulations

featured image

 

I always try to remind myself that the broader drinking public doesn’t give a toss about the same things I do. For instance, members of the drinking public, in my experience, don’t really care about the particulars of whisky labelling. I found this out over a seven year stretch where I presented every kind of whisky class imaginable. In almost every class, particularly the introductory sessions, I’d talk about the terms on whisky labels: unpack the ‘straight’ on a bottle of Bourbon, discuss the ‘blended’ in Scotch, the ‘single’ in single malt.

At the end of these classes, rarely, if ever, would attendees come up to me afterwards and ask about these terms, even though I spent enormous amounts of time studying and memorising regulations, definitions and standards of identity. I knew how important these things were, but they, understandably, didn’t care about that stuff. They wanted more stories and recommendations. They wanted to know if they were allowed to drink whisky with ice, what the best cheap whisky was, which Japanese whisky I’d recommend.

But there’s a subset of whisky enthusiasts and consumers who take whisky labelling very seriously. It doesn’t take much to rile these folks, and two of Lark Distilling Co’s recent whiskies have done a smart job of it.

The hysteria centres on two new Lark whisky releases: Symphony No. 1, a blended malt, composed of Lark, Nant and another Tasmania single malt (reportedly Overeem). And Lark’s The Wolf Release 2020, the latest installment of an annual collaboration between Lark and Wolf of the Willows Brewing Co.

All sounds fairly innocuous, right? But the problems arise when you take a closer look at the labels.

 

Lark Symphony No.1, Lark The Wolf Release 2020

 

Esteemed whisky writer Andrew Derbidge, the director and cellarmaster of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia, recently wrote a pointed examination of the issues these whiskies throw up on his Whisky & Wisdom site. He references the infamous Cardhu debacle and argues these two Lark bottlings could inspire similar upheaval.

What happened? In 2002, Cardhu’s owner, Diageo, changed the single malt by blending it with other Speyside makes and re-badging it as ‘Cardhu Pure Malt’. Diageo couldn’t keep pace with the demand for Cardhu. It was a sought-after single malt in crucial European markets and an important component in Johnnie Walker blends, and their sneaky shortcut was marketed as an appropriate fix.

A fiasco ensued, and ultimately led to an overhaul of Scotch whisky labelling regulations and the creation of the ‘blended malt’ term. Most pertinent to our story was the following change, which was made law with the introduction of The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009:

 

The name of a distillery mentioned… must not be used as a brand name, or as part of a brand name of a Scotch Whisky, or be used in a similar fashion in terms of its positioning or prominence, unless the whisky has been wholly distilled at that distillery.

 

Derbidge, and others, point out that Lark’s Symphony No. 1 would breach this clause of the regulations, because Lark is both the name of a distillery and a single malt – arguably Australia’s most important over the last 30 years. That these regulations have no bearing on how Australian whisky is labelled or regulated was mentioned in passing, but more on that later.

The Lark Wolf Release 2020 is more straightforward, but also murkier. This year, Lark Distilling Co selected casks of Nant single malt – the infamous brand and distillery they acquired in 2016 – to be matured in the customary ex-beer casks and bottled under the Lark brand for the 2020 release. ‘From our Bothwell Distillery’ is the only indication on the front label that the whisky inside is Nant, although it’s made clearer in the description text: ‘This year, the single malt chosen was from our Bothwell Distillery, home of Nant Single Malt Whisky.’

Like many folks in the industry, I don’t have a problem with the Lark Symphony blended malt (I’m excited by it!). It was made patently clear that this was a new whisky and a blend of three separate Tasmanian malts.

But like most industry folks, I find the labelling of The Wolf Release 2020 more troubling. If you’d purchased the previous Wolf releases and didn’t know about the relationship between Lark and Nant or where those distilleries were located, you could easily be confused. In saying that, if you spent $240 on this whisky and didn’t read the label or product description, do you really care where the whisky was distilled? (Particularly if it tastes good, which, I’ve been led to believe over the years, is fairly important.)

If you felt aggrieved, you’d be well within your rights to ask Lark Distilling Co why they didn’t put this new Wolf Release in a Nant bottle, or why they weren’t clear on the front label that this was Nant single malt. (Anyone familiar with the Nant story will likely know the answers to those questions).

The infamous Cardhu ‘Pure Malt’ circa 2002/3

 

I’m no lawyer (so take this with a shot of whisky), but as I read the various laws governing Australian whisky production and labelling, I don’t see anything wrong with the Symphony blended malt. Yes, The Wolf Release 2020 is in bad form, but again, the origins of the whisky are there on the label. Whether or not it’s too complicated for the average Joe to decipher, I’ll leave that to wiser, well-paid legal minds to decide.

What I don’t understand is why we’re holding an Australian distillery to account based on foreign whisky regulations that don’t exist here, never have and likely never will. Last time I checked, this, ah, isn’t Scotland – we have our own long-established definitions and regulations completely separate to those governing Scotch. Are these regulations perfect? No (more on that later, too). But any discussion around how a company chooses to label their whisky should firstly recognise that if they aren’t breaking any rules, well, it’s their whisky, they can do what they want with it. If consumers don’t like it, they won’t buy it, and anyone who’s miffed about transparency can seek recourse against Australian laws with the relevant authorities.

In terms of this being a ‘Cardhu moment’ for the Australian whisky industry, I don’t see it. Diageo deliberately flouted accepted Scottish industry practice and standards to sell more cases of Cardhu. Lark have created a brand new blended malt whisky that completely satisfies Australian regulations and then bottled up a few casks of Nant in a somewhat confusing and dubious package.

What’s nice about all this, though, is that we’re now talking about Australian standards and definitions, their history and their future. This is healthy stuff: regulations and their interpretation are open to challenge, that’s how the industry progresses.

What’s not widely understood is that Australian whisky regulations have a long and proud history. Our current regulations have guided distillers and protected consumers for nearly 120 years, starting with the Distillation and Excise Acts of 1901. Before Scotland and Ireland could even agree on a definition of what whisky was, Australia had formally defined standards in law for both Australian malt and blended whiskies within the Spirits Act 1906 following a royal commission:

Spirits Act 1906

 

In fact, between 1910 and 1929, Australian whisky distillers continually lobbied the Australian government to hold imported whiskies to similar standards. They boldly argued that Scotch and Irish weren’t being produced to the same high quality as Australian whisky. The definition of Scotch whisky wasn’t officially secured in UK law until 1933, so the industry claimed that, compared to the strict rules Australian distillers had been making whisky to, consumers had no way of knowing exactly what was in imported Scotch, especially blends. Well before ‘single malt’ existed as a defined category in UK law, Australia had established its own legal standard of how a quality malt whisky should be produced.

 

The Weekly Times, The Age, The Labour Daily – 1925

 

There’s even an historical precedent from this period that mirrors Lark Distilling Co’s current releases. In the 1920s, Joshua Brothers long-established ‘Boomerang’ malt whisky brand continued to be sold by Federal Distillery Pty Ltd alongside their newly created Old Court blended malt. (This might be news to Lark Distilling Co, as they like to frequently claim they were the first Australian distillery in 154 years to produce ‘single malt spirit’.)

 

The Sun, 1926

 

I bring all this up to illustrate a couple of important points. Firstly, we’ve got to stop framing the Australian whisky industry through a Scottish lens – they’ve never been the same and they never will be.

In Scotland, ever since blended Scotch took over in the late 19th century, the purpose of the vast majority of Scottish whisky distilleries has been to supply blends. That’s shifted slightly in recent years, with new malt whisky distilleries emerging and the success of exceptions like Bruichladdich, Springbank, Kilchoman, Benromach, etc. It’s this arrangement that’s helped Scottish blends and the remarkable array of single malts to thrive. In that context, their whisky regulations make perfect sense.

Our industry is different. For one, Australian distilleries produce multiples styles of spirit, always have done. It’s standard practice here for gins, rums, brandies, even other whiskies, to be bottled under a parent brand. Glenfiddich rum? Macallan brandy? Not gonna happen, right, and a good thing, too.

But should we ignore Australian distilling heritage and demand our whisky producers create a separate brand every time they build or acquire a new whisky distillery, just so we can be like the Scots? With that thinking, Perth-based Whipper Snapper couldn’t sell any of the whisky produced at their new Colac distillery in Victoria under their Upshot brand. And what if Archie Rose marries single malt distilled across their Rosebery and Botany sites, would that be in contravention of the hallowed ‘single’ malt definition?

 

A Milne’s bottling containing malt whisky from Thebarton Distillery in Adelaide and possibly Melbourne malt whisky – The Argus, 1936

 

In reality, there’s never been anything singular about Australian malt whisky. Hardly any of the Australian whisky distilleries that came online in the 1990s and 2000s released single malts that met the Scottish definition (Sullivans Cove still don’t). In their early phases, most sourced wort from external breweries and many of them also shifted locations multiple times. Today, Tasmanian and mainland distilleries continue to source wort from off-site breweries. Some, like Spring Bay Distillery, perform distillations across separate sites.

The problem is, many of the imported terms consumers see on Australian whisky labels don’t accurately convey how whisky is made here and where it’s from. Where I firmly agree with Andrew Derbidge and others is that some consumers are confused and frustrated. They want more transparency when they fork out the serious money being asked for an Australian whisky.

I do, however, think the current regulations, broad as they are, do a great job in balancing innovation and tradition for most of the whisky that’s produced here (see all the awesome rye, corn and mix-grain Australian whiskies being released). But Australian ‘single malt’ doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment. And forget Scotland, the state of play in the U.S. holds much more relevance. The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission has already developed commonsense standards of identity to create clarity for producers and consumers and advocate on behalf of their 140+ member distilleries. Even Japan is now making some progress on overhauling their almost non-existent whisky laws.

Surely producers across the country need to start collaborating and coming together to talk about what’s working, what’s not, and what future standards and definitions should look like. Yes, it’s odious, but if it could be done 104 years ago at a time when Australia was the fourth largest whisky producing nation in the world, we can get it sorted now.

Think about the drinking public. They don’t want to hear boring arguments about what’s on a bloody whisky label. They want stories and laughs and a good drink, and I, for one, would much prefer to be talking about that.

 

Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. A freelance writer and author, Luke's the chief judge of the Perth Royal Distilled Spirits Awards, a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, and his book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.