Who Makes the Rules?

When talking about whiskey, inevitably the conversation will turn to the rules for bourbon or the rules for Scotch. But who makes these rules? How are these rules enforced?

Simply put, the rules for such things as bourbon and Scotch are codified into law by individual countries. For instance, the US has a set of laws on what can bear the label “bourbon.” If the bottle in question does not meet those rules, it cannot be sold in the United States and call itself bourbon.

Does this mean someone in India can put a mystery liquid in a bottle and sell it as bourbon? Well, yes. Maybe. They certainly could not export it to the US and still call it bourbon.

SWA LogoSimilarly, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has a set of rules for what qualifies as Scotch. So can someone in Kentucky slap the word Scotch on a bottle and sell it? No. But why do the rules set up by the SWA mean anything to the United States? The key is trade agreements.

When signing international trade agreements, a fair amount of quid pro quo goes on. What this means is that when the US signs a trade agreement with say, the EU, they both agree to protect the product Trade Agreementcategories defined by individual countries. This means that the US gets to decide what “bourbon” is (and that it must come from the US) and the Scots get to decide what “Scotch” is (and that it must come from Scotland, of course!). There is actually a very complicated list of regionally restricted categories covering every conceivable type of alcohol embedded in these trade agreements.

Any country becoming a signatory to one of these trade agreements binds themselves to abide by these regional restrictions. Our enterprising distiller in Kentucky would not be allowed to sell his “Scotch” anywhere. Which is why Japanese single malts that taste indistinguishable from Scotch single malts will never be called Scotch. They are just Japanese single malts, though many bars will list them under Scotches. For shame!

Here are “The Rules” in their official form:

Bourbon / other American

Scotch (SWA) / The scotch Whisky Regulations 2009



Many other types do not have specific rules other than they must be from the indicated location.