In the spirits world, Geographical Indications, or GI for those who are conserving syllables, have recently been in the forefront of many nerdy conversations. This is especially true in the rum community. I’ve written extensively about certain rum-related GIs and have noticed that there’s a lot of confusion about what a GI is—and what it is not—as well as what it accomplishes.
If you really want to dive deep, a solid, entry-level understanding can be found here.
However, to help create a base level of knowledge with less intensive study, I’ve created a of GI “fast facts,”: The broader, more general topics are first, and probably offer a few terms that are new to you. The later entries transition to various country-specific GI topics of particular note to the rum community.
GIFF (Geographical Indications Fast Facts)
- GIs are laws and associated international agreements regarding how products can be described; specifically, products whose description refers to the name of a region or country.
An example makes this clearer: Champagne is the name of a region in France, as well a description of a particular type of sparkling wine. Consumers have built up some amount of goodwill, trust, and expectation from the champagne nomenclature.
A “champagne” made in Iceland would very likely not meet consumer expectations and, if regularly sold, would diminish the value of the champagne term. The GI and international agreements associated with the Champagne GI address the issues of what should be allowed to be called champagne.
- GIs exist for many different types of agricultural products, including wines, distilled spirits, cheese, meats, and fruits.
- GIs and intellectual property trademarks are closely related. However, trademarks are associated with a company, while GIs are associated with a place.
- GIs intersect heavily with international trade and intellectual property issues. As such, they are addressed in agreements by global organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
The aforementioned WIPO document describes a Geographical indication as “a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin.”
- Regional groupings of countries such as the European Union (EU) or the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) also deal with GIs as they relate to their member countries. These organizations may negotiate common aspects of GI regulations and formats within their member states, as well as recognition by outside countries or country groupings.
- The European Union subdivides GI into three categories: Protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG). PDO is the most restrictive, requiring the product to be prepared, processed, and produced in the named region, whereas a PGI requires that only one of those conditions be met. The TSG is the least restrictive and does not certify that the protected product has a link to specific geographical area.
- France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Greece, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica are among the many countries with GIs.
- GIs go by many different names, depending on where they originate. In France, they are known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, abbreviated to AOC. France has AOCs for many agricultural products including wine, cheese, and rhum. Italy also has multiple GIs, known regionally as a Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC. Meanwhile, Cuba has the Denominación de Origen Protegida, or DOP.
- A GI does not constrain how a producer makes their products. It merely restricts how they designate and label that product. A product that meets all of a GIs conditions is legally allowed to use specific wording on the label that represents the product’s provenance.
For example, the existence of the Martinique rhum AOC does not prevent producers from making non-AOC compliant rhums. Likewise, producers making and bottling rum in Jamaica can only label the bottle “Jamaica Rum” if it meets the requirements of the Jamaican rum GI.
- A product (such as rum) that does not meet a GI’s requirements can still be made and sold. However, those products may not use the GI’s protected wording on the label, e.g. “Jamaica Rum.” Another description that does not use the GI wording is used instead.
Put another way, producers are free to innovate outside of the GI with nearly any production technique they so choose, possibly subject to other regional laws. They just can’t use the special wording on the label that is reserved for products meeting the GI’s requirements.
- Since GIs are national regulations, their applicability and enforcement does not automatically extend to other countries. Enforcement of a GI outside of its home country is often a negotiated agreement among countries or regional organizations such as the EU.
For example, the United States recognizes that, in order to be sold in the U.S., products sold as single malt scotch whisky must meet the GI requirements set forth by the United Kingdom. More specifically, “Scotch whisky” has a “standard of identity” in the US.
Similarly, in 2013, the U.S. recognized cachaça as a standard of identity in exchange for Brazil’s recognizing the U.S. standard of identity rules regarding bourbon.
At the time of this writing, Jamaica’s GI has not yet been submitted to the EU for recognition.
- A GI’s requirements are typically discussed and agreed to by producers within the covered region before it is submitted to the country’s government for legal recognition. That is, GIs typically originate from the producers, not the government.
Every country has their own process for how their GI process works, and sometimes the negotiations are contentious. This is especially true if the affected producers don’t agree on what the GI should and should not require or allow
- GIs have what could be termed required elements, optional elements, specified wording, and elements which are left unspecified. (My words, not official terms.)
For instance, pot distillation is a required element of single malt Scotch, while column distillation is a required element of the Martinique rhum AOC.
An optional element is something that is allowed but not required. For example, the Martinique AOC says that rhum may be aged, but aging is not a requirement. Similarly, a GI that allowed the use of sweeteners as “rounding agents” would not compel producers to use them if they chose not to.
An example of specified wording is the names allowed for a spirit of a certain age. For instance, the Martinique AOC requires that if the words Extra Vieux, Grande Réserve, Hors d’Age and XO are used on a label, the rhum within must be at least six years old.
An unspecified element in a GI is something that is neither specifically allowed nor disallowed. For example, the 2016 Jamaican rum GI does not mention the use of muck or dunder (aka vinasse) as allowed ingredients in the rum wash. As written, the GI states:
The fermented wash shall be produced using sugar cane molasses, juice of sugar cane, crystallized cane sugar, sugar cane syrup, and or a mixture or combination of the above which comply with the conditions of the present code are entitled to the Geographical Indication “Jamaica Rum.”
Unspecified elements are often a source of disagreements regarding interpretation of a GI.
- It is possible for a GI to meet all the technical production requirements but still not receive approval to use the GI designation. Some GIs also require the product pass a sensory panel (i.e., tasters) who decide if the product is fundamentally within the character of GI-compliant products.
For instance, a panel of Martinique producers blind-evaluates every rhum submitted for GI approval to determine if the spirit represents the AOC style of rhum. Jamaican rum has a similar requirement – Article 6 of the Jamaican rum GI.
- A GI can be replaced with newer versions. The Martinique AOC was first ratified in 1996, then subsequently replaced by the 2005 and 2014 AOCs. Many of the changes relative to the 1996 version allow things that previously did not met AOC requirements. For example, in the 1996 AOC, the maximum fermentation length was limited to 72 hours; in the 2014 AOC, the maximum is 120 hours.
- The current list of countries or territories enforcing GIs for cane spirits includes but Is not necessarily limited to Martinique, Jamaica, Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Guatemala, and Venezuela.
- Producers may be quite capable of making a GI-compliant spirit but instead choose to make both compliant spirits as well as those outside of the GI requirements.
Martinique’s AOC is known to be particularly restrictive in its regulations. As such, many Martinique producers offer both AOC-compliant and non–AOC compliant rhums. A non-AOC rhum isn’t necessarily of lower quality. Rather, producers often see value in creating products using techniques that would run afoul of the AOC requirements.
For example, Martinique distiller Trois-Rivières produces Cannes Brûlées, a very interesting agricole rhum, made from burnt sugar cane. Its slightly smoky notes are surely outside of the “expected” AOC flavor profile. However, the distillery believed that it would be popular with rhum enthusiasts, so released it as a non-AOC compliant rhum, alongside their AOC compliant bottlings.
GIs can be a very complex topic, subject to much debate. And as hardcore rum enthusiasts know, they’re often controversial. While the list above won’t make you a GI lawyer, they should enable you to follow and perhaps meaningfully participate in discussions about GIs with other enthusiasts.
My complete collection of articles on geographical indications is here: Geographical indication Archives