English and Welsh whisky industries seek greater protection

The English and Welsh whisky industries are seeking greater protection for their respective spirit categories, with potential plans for a GI and an industry association in the works, db can reveal.

the drinks business understands that a group of English whisky distillers will meet for the first time on 23 April (St George’s Day) this year to discuss their future. Whether this will lead to the formation of an English whisky association remains to be seen, but there is a clear desire among members of the industry to work collectively to safeguard their future.

Welsh whisky distillers are also making moves. With four distilleries in operation, and another to shortly begin production, the Welsh whisky landscape is changing. Plans are afoot for a geographical indication (GI) for Welsh whisky, which would create some formal standards for production and could also involve the formation of an association. This process, however, will take a number of years and is still in the early stages of development.

As things stand, both industries conform to the EU regulations which govern the production of whisky. Under EU law, whiskies must be matured for at least three years in wooden casks of 700 litres or less. They must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and can be neither sweetened nor flavoured with any additives, apart from plain caramel for colouring.

There is no suggestion that producers wish to alter these rules, but rather add further guidelines covering topics such as quality and provenance.

Speaking to db, founder and CEO of Cotswolds Distillery, Dan Szor, explained that the message was one of collaboration.

“We’re all in the business of supporting each other,” he said. “We’re in the enviable position of having such a small peer group, and what we really want is for each other to make great whisky.

“I never want to see a review saying ‘this English whisky is horrible’ – that would give me no pleasure. We all want each other to succeed and are all egging each other on.”

There are no firm plans for an association as this will depend on the outcome of the April meeting, as well as talks with bodies such as the WSTA.

Szor, however, has his own ideas about what he’d like an industry association to stand for.

“While I don’t believe English whisky has a set style, in terms of definable characteristics, it would be good if English whisky makers stood for quality, transparency and honesty. I think we should be ambassadors of fair play.”

Szor would also like to see a tax relief scheme set up for small distillers, similar to the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) in the US and Small Brewer Relief (SBR) in the UK.

“We have it for brewers and cider makers, so why not for distillers,” he said. He added that he had previously asked his local MP about implementing such a measure, and was told that in the EU, one member state was not allowed to make such a change without it being approved by every member state.

With Brexit now confirmed, Szor would like to see this change.

“We’re [English whisky distilleries] great for employment, tourism, exports and Britain’s premium image. As far as I’m concerned, this should be a real political aim for an English whisky association,” he said.

Dhavall Gandhi, master blender at the Lakes Distillery, also believes having a “collective voice” will help the industry in the future.

He said: “Whether it’s to do with regulations, rules or protection, it’s always good to have some kind of collective voice. But I think it’s still a good idea to give people some time and space to create the style of spirit they want.”

Alex Wolpert, founder of East London Liquor Company (ELLC), agreed that preserving diversity was vital.

“I’m not particularly set on having an English whisky accreditation or defining characteristics that binds us all together in a process point of you,” he said. “I’m much more for celebrating the category more overtly because there is such difference and search diversity across the producers that currently make whisky.”

Welsh whisky

Distilleries in Wales are currently drafting proposals for a GI. Stephen Davies, the CEO of Wales’ oldest commercial whisky distillery, Penderyn, which in December this year will celebrate 20 years of distilling, believes that as more producers enter the market, the GI will be easier to obtain.

“I’ve done a bit of work on obtaining a GI to see whether we can create some standards and rules which would be comparable to those that are established for Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y,” he said. “It’s quite difficult to do when you’re one brand, but the fact that there are now more people coming into the industry is an advantage because we will be able to use our collective resources to obtain the GI.”

“People like Aber Falls distillery share our ambition to establish a GI for Wales. We’ve talked to the Welsh government about it, and we’ve also talked to the UK government in the past. It takes a few years, but we’ve got some drafts and are going to be working on it once the dust settles after Brexit. Over the next few years, I’d like to see the cluster effect developing in Wales so that we can be seen as a whisky producing nation.”

James Wright, managing director of Aber Falls, believes Welsh whisky is following a similar path to that of Japanese whisky.

“When I was Tokyo last year, I talked to a lot of distilleries and there’s a heck of a lot of similarities to how we’re going about things in Wales,” he said.

Wright has also made some GI drafts and has met with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to discuss his plans.

“We’re going to be sitting down with all the distilleries in the next few weeks to agree what I’ve put in the draft and the principles in the GI. It gives us the flexibility to create and define what the Welsh whisky category is,” he said.

As to the content of the GI draft, Wright believes it’s important to make sure distilleries “can push the boundaries a bit”, but that rules must be “clear” yet “not too tight”.

Wright already works closely with the Food and Drink Wales Board and the Welsh government, but believes there’s no reason why Welsh distilleries should not also collaborate.

He added: “After Brexit we have to work hard to make sure the industry has visibility. Collaboration will also make sure that the supply chain and sustainability issues are adhered to now and into the future. Ultimately, it’s about being brave enough to say, let’s just do it. Wales has got some fantastic brands – we just need to shout about it.”

A feature covering the latest developments in the English and Welsh whisky industries will appear in the March issue of the drinks business magazine. 

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