Spirits labelling revision must strike the right balance between tradition and innovation

Written by Ulrike Müller on 12 October 2017 in Opinion

The revision of the spirits regulation must take care not to add extra burdens for SMEs using traditional production methods, says Ulrike Müller.

Ulrike Müller | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

European spirits enjoy an outstanding reputation all over the world - and for good reason. In Europe we have various high-quality spirits that are the product of a long tradition of agriculture.

For example, Germany currently has around 16,000 small-scale distilleries. However, elsewhere in Europe, the highest-quality products are produced by SMEs with close links to agriculture. It is therefore all the more important to ensure the lasting quality of these products and not place any additional burden on SMEs.

In the course of revising the spirits regulation, I believe it is vital to maintain the close link between the spirits industry and agriculture. Therefore, it needs to take into account the fact that the ethyl alcohol used to produce spirits and other alcoholic drinks needs to be of agricultural origin.


This would safeguard the quality of European spirits, and also guarantee an important outlet for basic agricultural products.

Protecting SMEs’ production methods and traditional manufacturing techniques isn’t just important from an economic point of view. For example, smaller fruit distilleries mainly work with fruit from orchards and thus enable the preservation of an ancient cultural landscape. Not only are these orchards home to rare animal and plant species, they also form a natural place of refuge for old varieties of fruit.

Therefore, we need to make sure that the regulation works, particularly for SMEs. This applies firstly to the system used to register geographical indications. At present, the EU spirit regulation protects 245 established geographical indications (so-called GIs). 

By revising the spirit regulation, the system used to register GIs will be harmonised with the process that is already applied to agricultural and food products. We must ensure that the level of legal protection is preserved. 

Second, we need to keep in mind that flexibility regarding categories of spirits strikes the right balance between the protection of tradition on one hand and the provision of innovative products on the other. Substantial fluctuations in both directions would have a negative impact on quality.

It’s important for Parliament to have its say, for example on accepting or changing geographical indications, on protecting traditional manufacturing processes and on essential definitions.

In 2011, for example, the Commission wanted to revise the term ‘Absinth’, which would have forced German and Austrian manufacturers to either rename or change their recipes. This proposal was stopped by Parliament. This example clearly demonstrates just how important Parliament’s control function is for ensuring that flexibility regarding spirit categories has no undesirable consequences.

Another major debate concerning the spirits regulation involves the varying rules on the use of sugar for complementing spirits. Not only do these lack transparency for the consumer, but they also create unfair competition within the internal market. I would like to see EU standardisation which could provide a solution to this problem and set common quality standards. 

Unfortunately, currently manufacturers do not seem to be able to harmonise with each other, meaning the solution has to be postponed. However, those distilleries that refrain from adding sugar when preparing spirits are at least permitted to label their products accordingly.

The absence of sugar suggests a higher quality of distillation and is therefore a significant quality factor for spirits. However absurdly, this claim is prohibited by the health claims regulation.


About the author

Ulrike Müller (DE) is Parliament’s ALDE group shadow rapporteur on spirit drinks labelling report

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