The Commission has published a proposal to update laws that have been governing the spirits sector since 1989.
The main aspect of the proposal, if agreed by the European Council and Parliament, would see spirit drinks split into three categories - spirits, specific spirit drinks, and other spirit drinks - each with specific rules on production.
Jamie Fortescue, director general of the European Spirits Organisation CEPS, told www.BeverageDaily.com that many of its members had reacted with caution to the proposed definition structure, despite welcoming the planned update of production regulations.
"Our main concern is the system of categorising spirits. This is completely new, and we have not yet got to grips with where it is coming from or why. I am convinced it has not come from the industry," said Fortescue.
The rules could mean more labelling changes for spirits producers and would apply to all drinks sold in the EU, even if imported from outside the bloc.
Under the Commission plan, the 'spirits' category would be for "only the purest form of product" such as rum, whisky and brandy. It would allow natural flavouring but no ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin.
The section for 'specific spirit drinks' would allow drinks containing ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin and limited nature-identical flavouring, such as gin, vodka and liqueur.
The third category, 'other spirit drinks', would be the most open, allowing ethyl, flavourings, sweeteners and other additives.
Fortescue said the proposed categories could lead to disputes over where drinks were placed. Vodka, for example, may fit into all three depending on where and how it has been made.
"One spirit could also be considered superior to another, when this cannot be justified. For example, no one can say Baileys is better than whisky - that is for the consumer to decide."
The European Commission said the new definition system would simplify regulation in the spirits sector.
"The rules are designed to protect and inform consumers and prevent deceptive practices, while enhancing market transparency and fair competition," said agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.
Fortescue said that, despite the plan for new categories, the CEPS welcomed the Commission proposal overall because of the many amendments to technical regulations.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), in particular, said it "fully supports" tighter regulations for its sector at the EU level.
"We have been in discussions with the Commission about this for a number of years," said David Williamson, SWA spokesperson, to www.BeverageDaily.com.
"It doesn't alter traditional production processes, but it tightens up some of the ambiguities in spirits regulation. For example, it makes clear that you cannot [artificially] sweeten or flavour whisky."
Other measures in the proposal include the renewal of geographical indications for certain spirit drinks in line with WTO rules.
It is still unclear how long the proposal may take to work its way through the EU machine. The SWA said it may take up to two years before a new regulation is introduced, while the Commission has pencilled in a progress report for 19-20 June this year.