Whisky business: The 120-year-old law sparking a war over the name ‘single malt’

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A century-old Australian law that allows alcohol to be called whisky only if it has been matured for two years has led to a fight between Australian distillers, after new technology now allows a bottle to be ready in just two weeks.

Sydney-based Goodradigbee Distillers and Mountain Distilling, based in regional Victoria, are calling their product ‘single malt’ to get around the restriction in the Excise Act 1901.

The move has angered established distillers, who say it is putting the reputation of Australian whisky producers at risk.

George Cremasco, co-founder of Mountain Distilling, can mature a single malt in 14 days. Credit: Paul Jeffers

Backwoods Distilling Co. director Leigh Attwood said labelling products as “single malt” was misleading consumers because of the term’s close association with whisky.

“These brands leave the term whisky off their labels,” he said. “But consumers see ‘single malt’ as whisky regardless. Therefore, the practice of these brands is misleading and deceptive.”

Whisky, brandy and rum must be matured by storage in wood for a minimum of two years under Commonwealth legislation. Unaged spirits cannot legally be referred to as whisky, but the law does not define single malt.

Backwoods Distilling Co. director Leigh Attwood said labelling products as “single malt” was confusing for consumers.

Goodradigbee Distillers uses “accelerated maturation cubes”, built from unique Australian hardwoods, to produce the colour of a 10-year-old single-malt whisky in eight weeks.

Mountain Distilling’s Red Gum Single Malt is matured in just 14 days.

Mountain Distilling co-founder Michael Harris said the company intentionally avoided calling their product whisky on its website because it did not meet the legal requirements under Australian law.

“Single malt is an unregulated term in Australia and we have borrowed the terminology in order to provide customers with an association to a like-product that they will understand,” he said.

But the use of “single malt” has led to confusion among some retailers that list Mountain Distilling Red Gum Single Malt as a whisky on their websites. When this masthead contacted one of these retailers about the labelling, a spokeswoman acknowledged the error and said it would be labelled accurately in the future.

Harris said he could see why the term “single malt” might be confusing, “but for now it is a useful term in the transition to a better definition”.

Harris said the legal definition of whisky should be expanded to allow for new types of whisky that had alternative maturation techniques.

“The trouble with what we are doing is that there is currently no definition for the product we are creating,” he said.

Mountain Distilling’s Red Gum single malt cannot legally be called whisky. Credit: Supplied

Goodradigbee Distillers founder John O’Connor said in a statement that the brand was “an innovation business that is establishing a completely new category of whisky”.

The controversy over use of the term “single malt” has prompted the Australian Distillers Association to review standards for Australian whisky.

“Many within the industry believe the term ‘single malt’ is misleading and should only be used in reference to whisky,” chief executive Paul McLeay said.

“That is why, as an industry, we are having the discussion about product descriptions and technical standards to make it clear to both consumers and producers.”

Oliver Maruda, co-founder of online retailer The Whisky List, is also critical of the use of the term “single malt” to describe products that do not meet the legal requirements for whisky.

“These producers prey on the trust that consumers have and label their products as single malts, leaving the word whisky off the bottle,” he said.

“Major liquor supermarkets like Dan Murphy’s are also at fault here as they do not do any due diligence with the products they range.”

Maruda said stricter rules around labelling were needed, or new categories created for unaged spirits, so that distillers “can happily play in that lane without tarnishing the reputation of Australian whisky”.

Corowa Distilling Co. managing director Dean Druce said the rules about what constituted Australian whisky were so broad that “I think it is always going to leave the industry open for people to try and cheat the system”.

“I think that we as the Australian whisky industry need to hold onto the term ‘single malt’ like gold and anyone trying to use and abuse the term need to be kicked to the curb,” he said.

Manly Spirits Co. Distillery co-founder Vanessa Wilton said labelling a spirit as “single malt” that had not been aged for at least two years could be seen as misleading or confusing to the consumer.

Wilton also said Australia’s high taxes on spirits – almost $100 a litre – put financial strain on distilleries, forcing them to cut costs: “One area where they may try to save money is by opting for cheaper or lower-quality ingredients.”

High taxes might also lead distilleries to reduce the maturation period to minimise storage costs and generate revenue quickly, she said.

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