Wide World of Spirits

Does Irish Whiskey have to be made in Ireland? Does all London dry gin come from London? What about Jamaican rum?  Japanese Whisky? There are spirits from all over the world, but the United States doesn’t treat them all the same. So when you see a country or other geographic area on a label, what does it mean? 


There are three main categories for defining imported spirits that mention geographic areas on their labels. The categories range from very strict to completely meaningless. 

 1. Distinctive Products.  Selected spirits are considered “distinctive products” of their countries and must be made in compliance with the laws of that nation.  Often, this protected status results from trade agreements. This applies to a very short list of spirits: 


o    Scotch Whisky 

o    Irish Whisky 

o    Canadian Whisky 

o    Cognac 

o    Pisco (including Pisco Peru or Pisco Chilleno) 

o    Cachaça 

o    Tequila 


The new proposed TTB regulations would add Mezcal, Armagnac, Calvados and Brandy de Jerez to this list.

2.  Geographical Designations.  Spirits with other geographic designations on their labels are generally required to come from the place listed. Examples are Armagnac, Greek brandy, Jamaica rum, Puerto Rico rum, and Demerara rum.  These spirits have to be made in the country or area listed on the label but don’t necessarily have to conform to the laws of that country.  As I noted in my post earlier this month about Defining Rum, this is particularly problematic with regard to rum since many rum producing countries have laws restricting additives. Because those rums are not considered “distinctive products” of their nations, they don’t have to comply with those laws to be sold in the US.   

There is one big loophole to this rule. You can also get around the rule completely by using the word “type” after the geographic designation.  Want to label your Idaho rum as Jamaican, just call it “Jamaican Type Rum” and you’re in the clear. 

3.  Generic Geographical Terms. This category applies to terms that have “lost their geographical significance” and become generic. Examples would be London dry gin and Geneva (Hollands) gin. These spirits can be made anywhere despite the geographic designation.  

 How does all of this apply to American spirits? That’s a good question...for another post.