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How new Irish whiskey rules could boost innovation

The Irish whiskey sector has experienced massive growth since its Technical File, which lays out its specifications, was registered with the European Commission. Now the industry hopes regulatory changes could protect tradition while fostering creativity.

Irish whiskey is protected by a GI
Irish whiskey’s Technical File was registered in 2014

*This feature was originally published in the December 2021 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

The Irish whiskey category has seen an influx of new distilleries and brands in the past decade. In 2013, there were only four distilleries producing and selling Irish whiskey, and now the category has welcomed more than 40 producers. Irish whiskey was officially the fastest‐growing spirit category in the world over the past decade, with 140% growth in sales from 2010 to 2020. In February 2020, just before the onset of the Covid‐19 pandemic, the 12‐month rolling total for Irish whiskey’s global sales broke 12 million cases.

The category is set for some major changes to the Irish Whiskey Technical File, which was registered with the European Commission in October 2014. Trade group the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), which was founded in 2014, has submitted a proposal to amend the Technical File because of the sector’s significant growth.

In September, the proposal was submitted to the Irish government’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), as well as the authorities responsible for the category’s geographical indication (GI).

William Lavelle, head of the IWA, explained: “The industry has grown very substantially over the past decade and since the Technical File was established. There has been a lot of discussion over the past few years about the file and that it would have to be updated to reflect some issues. It was a question of when it will be reopened.”

Lavelle said the decision to reopen the file was made in December 2020 by the IWA’s members, which represent more than 98% of the Irish whiskey industry.

In early 2021, the IWA began a review of the product specification to look at areas that affect the ‘growth and developing needs’ of the category and industry. According to the proposal, the aim of the amendments is to provide ‘increased efficiency in production processes, which will provide additional flexibility’ to producers.

Lavelle said: “A lot of it is about clarification, confusion over language about the size of pot stills, language that clarifies the different colours it can be, changes that talk about how you label peated malt or peated pot still whiskey.

“It needed clarification. It’s very much about updating the Technical File to protect tradition.”

The changes include an expansion of the definition of pot still Irish whiskey, allowing up to 30% of cereals other than barley to be used – specifically, oats, wheat or rye.

The IWA said this reflects more traditional pot still mash bills, and will ‘greatly enhance’ the subcategory by widening the taste profile and offering a unique selling point.

Furthermore, the group is also calling for the removal of the 30% maximum malted barley requirement from the category’s grain definition.

Sustainable production

Historically, a higher malted barley content has been used in grain production, the IWA noted. This move would assist in more sustainable grain whiskey production in the future because distilleries would be able to use more energy‐efficient processes, according to the trade body.

Currently distilleries are looking to minimise the energy needed for the drying and kilning processes, and one way this could be achieved is with the use of green malted barley. Due to the weight of this type of malt, it is difficult to meet the 30% maximum, the proposal noted. As such, the removal of the 30% requirement would enable distillers to use it.

Furthermore, the trade body is seeking to strengthen labelling rules to provide ‘greater clarity and language consistency’. The proposal stipulates that the labelling, packaging, advertising or promotion of an Irish whiskey must not include a reference to any number because it could cause confusion as to whether it relates to the product’s maturation period, age or when it was distilled. The move would also prevent ‘unfair competition against other products sold with genuine age statements’, the proposal said.

If the rule comes into force, it could mean that Proper No. Twelve, the brand owned by Jose Cuervo producer Becle and founded by professional fighter Conor McGregor, could be forced to change its name. The brand’s name refers to the suburb of Crumlin in Dublin, known as district 12, where McGregor grew up. The brand’s owner refused to comment on the proposal when approached by The Spirits Business.

So far, Lavelle said the organisation has not received any opposition to the proposal. It has also been largely welcomed by Irish whiskey producers, who have said it will increase flexibility and creativity.

Stephen Teeling, sales and marketing director of Teeling Whiskey Distillery, said: “When the original GI was written it was very narrow. Having the ability to be flexible or innovate can only be a good thing.” Teeling said the company has “huge plans for very interesting expressions of pot still, based around some of this flexibility”.

Graham Coull, master distiller of Dingle Distillery, also welcomed the proposed changes. He said: “The revised Technical File better reflects current practices, and allows for a degree of creativity within a regulated framework.”

Paul Corbett, head distiller at Clonakilty Distillery, added: “While various adjustments have been made to the Technical File, the major change centres around mash bills. As a distiller of single Irish pot still whiskies, Clonakilty is supportive of these changes, which support the use of heritage mash bills and utilise the greater use of Irish grain.

“On the sustainability side, we have been growing our own heritage barley on the family farm at the ocean’s edge and were delighted to have been able to distil with this barley this year. We are really excited to see how this whiskey develops over maturation.”

According to Lavelle, Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine has implied it intends to begin a consultation with stakeholders, including Defra in Northern Ireland, regarding the proposals. The next step will be a broader public consultation, he adds: “We’re very happy that they’ve responded quickly,” says Lavelle, who believes the amendments could be in place “by the end of next year”.

Meanwhile, a centralised system for label approval was established in January this year, but it has thrown up some challenges. Lavelle notes: “We have been having this ongoing dialogue with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine in relation to interpreting how EU law applies in terms of labelling, and this comes down to questions about provenance, such as where a whiskey was produced, which isn’t straightforward. The contents of a blended whiskey could have been distilled at numerous distilleries.”

As such, the IWA is hoping to secure a new set of labelling guidelines for the category, separate to the Technical File.

The IWA has also developed a new strategy for 2022 to 2026, with a big focus on sustainability. Lavelle added: “We’re going to continue working very hard to make sure we open up market access and avoid any tariffs and market barriers, which has become more complicated after Brexit.

“We want to also make sure there’s no divergence on how Irish whiskey is treated from the north to the south.”

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