Gin and Regulation: A Lesson in a Bottle

Uncle Vals Peppered Gin LabelThere is a bottle that sits on my desk which serves as irrefutable proof that less regulation is better than more.

Pull the stopper top and a remarkable aroma plumes forth. “I’d wear this as cologne,” a colleague remarked. He’s a clean-cut fellow, mind you, not a gutter dipsomaniac. “That’s really nice,” exclaimed another.

This 90-proof liquor’s scents come from juniper, cucumber, lemon, sage, lavender, black pepper, red bell peppers and pimento. It is Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin, made by 35 Maple Street Spirits in Sonoma, California.

Gin, you ask? Is that not the water-clear hooch from the United Kingdom that smells like pine needles? Yes, often gins are made in the London Dry style (think Beefeater). But gin need not ooze juniper.

And here’s where federal regulation comes in. In the United States, the definitions of various liquors are not spelled out in prolix laws. Our drinks are loosely defined in laconic regulations. The Code of Federal Regulations, volume 27, section 5.22(c) lays out the “standards of identity” for gin. It reads:

“…a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof.”

So long as it meets the basic production requirement and its main flavor is juniper berries, it may be labeled gin. I hasten to add that there is another version of Uncle Val’s gin flavored with rose petals. Whether the gin is made in London or Sonoma is no matter. Indeed some of the most interesting gins – including barrel-aged ones – are today made in places likePhiladelphia; Seattle; Boulder, Colo.; and Middleton, Wis.

Simplicity in federal rules allows entrepreneurial distillers room to be creative and we, the people, benefit. Would that the government followed suit in regulations generally, which at last word comprised more than 170,000 pages.