Keeping the ‘Scotch’ in casks of Scotch Whisky
There are many rules that legally define Scotch whisky, in the cask and in the bottle. These keep trust high, and that status allows Scotch to sell for high prices. As our online auctions gather steam, more people have the chance to own whisky in the cask. We’d like to provide the information you need to best look after these assets.
If you own a cask of whisky yourself, or plan to buy one directly through Cask 88, or our online auction service, then there’s something to learn from the following cautionary tale. Even through a small misunderstanding, a valuable cask of Scotch can lose its right to be called ‘Scotch’.
Legal Protection for Casks of Whisky
Like anything that has been around for a long time, Scotch whisky has evolved with the times as they have changed around it. From its Gaelic origins as ‘Uisghe Beatha’ – a nebulous term that captures some of the poetry of the spirit by calling it ‘Water of Life’, Scotch has had to become more clearly defined so that we all know what is being talked about. After all, it wouldn’t do to have unscrupulous types calling any old brown liquid ‘Scotch’ and selling it on under some kind of pretence.
Every few decades, the laws of the land with regard to Scotch whisky shift. Sometimes it’s to accomodate a new innovation’s impact on the production of whisky, sometimes to close a loophole that was being nefariously/cleverly/creatively (delete as appropriate) exploited to separate consumers from their pocket money.
If you care to look it up, you can find exactly how strong or weak in alcohol whisky is legally allowed to be. You can learn exactly what types of grain, and in what proportion, are tolerated in different types of whisky. As recently as last year, a new interpretation on which types of oak cask are allowed to be used to mature Scotch was brought into law. There are endless combinations of barrel type, oak species and cask finish to play with, so the next renegotiation may not be far away. This is the sign of a healthy industry.
These rules may add complexity, but they also protect us from being played for chumps because we trust in the good name of Scotch whisky. These rules ensure that the good name of Scotch whisky CAN be relied upon.
Protected Origins of Scotch Whisky
One rule we all thought we felt comfortable with was the Geographic one – to call a whisky ‘Scotch’ you have to produce it and mature it in Scotland. That’s common sense, right? Well, never assume. In a 2019 case, Mr John Savage Ontswedder successfully sold his cask of Springbank at auction for £50,000, but was later found liable in a Scottish court for mis-selling the cask as Scotch whisky. Though the Springbank had been produced at a Scottish distillery, and matured for 10 years in Scotland, and though Mr Savage Ontswedder had decanted the Scotch into inert containers for transport to Wales – he had then re-decanted the whisky back into an oak cask at his Welsh warehouse.
The result? This whisky was no longer Scotch – it had spent some of its life maturing in Wales. It didn’t matter that it had completed one 10 year tour of maturation in Scotland. Nor did it matter that it was put back into an appropriate barrel. It had interacted with an oak cask outside of Scotland and irredeemably lost its Scotch status. The case was eventually settled out of court, for a sum that likely took the shine off the sale price.
A Step by Step Guide to Moving Casks
To avoid a similar fate with your own casks, we’ve compiled a checklist of things you need to know about moving Scotch whisky around.
- Does a bottle of Scotch stop being Scotch when it leaves the country?
- No. Once the whisky is bottled, it stops maturing. Because it matures no further, and because it undergoes no further meddling, it keeps its Scotch status.
- Can a Scotch whisky cask be moved around Scotland?
- Yes, there are many warehousing facilities in Scotland and full casks can transfer between them without losing their status. Bear in mind that whisky is maturing under bond, and must be directly transported from one bonded warehouse to another, and this process must be carried out by a certified ‘WOWGR’ (Warehousekeepers and Owners of Warehoused Goods Regulations).
- I wish to bottle a Scotch whisky outside Scotland. Is this possible?
- Sort of. If you decant your Scotch whisky from its cask into an inert (e.g. plastic/steel) container in Scotland, and then transport the container abroad – the liquid inside will still be Scotch, and you can bottle it as Scotch whisky… but only if you create a blended whisky (including blended malt and blended grain) at the end. A single malt whisky MUST be bottled in Scotland before export, or lose its Scotch status. Oh boy, these laws are complicated. Our advice is to avoid the hassle, and only export Scotch out of Scotland in a bottle.
- Can I put my mature Scotch into an oak cask after I take it out of Scotland?
- Yes, you can, but it’ll no longer be Scotch. Scotch whisky has to completely mature in Scotland, no further maturation anywhere else. If you do start maturing again overseas, you can still call your liquid ‘whisky’. But definitely not ‘Scotch Whisky’. This is true for all types of Scotch whisky.
- How much does it cost to maintain a cask of whisky in Scotland?
- The costs of storage, inspection, licensing and insurance vary from warehouse to warehouse. With Cask 88, we take on these cask stewardship responsibilities on your behalf. The first three years of storage are free, thereafter we charge £50 per year.
For a full dive into the world of Scotch Whisky rules, this link to the memorandum on the 2009 Scotch Whisky regulations should help.