EXCLUSIVE:  Distillers submit GI application to firm-up English whisky rules

EXCLUSIVE: Distillers submit GI application to firm-up English whisky rules

The new English Whisky Guild has lodged an application to legally define what can be called 'English whisky'

News | 23 Feb 2022 | By Jacopo Mazzeo

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Whisky Magazine can reveal that the recently formed English Whisky Guild (EWG), a body formed to represent the English whisky industry, has recently submitted an application to legally define a geographical indication (GI) for English whisky.

According to the group, the GI’s purpose is to ensure consistent, understandable standards for all current and prospective whisky distillers in England.

“We’re not going to get anywhere unless what we make tastes really good, so we need to strike a balance between putting standards in place that scream quality but also allow for innovation,” said EWG board member Stephen Russell of Kent-based Copper Rivet Distillery. “There is a clear desire not to try to be ‘Scottish whisky south of the border’ but instead to be interesting and employ innovative techniques, use best practices from around the world and do whatever it takes to create whisky that tastes amazing.”

The team at Copper Rivet distillery in Kent

Indeed, while most of the criteria that EWG members agreed on take inspiration from Irish and Scotch whisky regulations, the proposed GI reflects the English whisky industry’s young and innovative nature, by requiring the use of raw materials (i.e. grains) of UK origin and allowing for maturation in casks made from any type of wood.

“We like to think we’re innovative and different,” said Tagore Ramoutar of the Oxford Artisan Distillery, who was in charge of drafting the GI proposal. “In fact, almost all of the [EWG] distilleries are using English grain rather than UK grain, but, of course, if one’s doing peated they might get something from north of the border [so we had to allow for Scottish origin]. It will be an important part of our USP.”

Crucially, the type of still allowed by the GI proposal for the production of English single malt “reflects more modern ways of doing things” too, as Ramoutar put it. The drafted GI requires two batch distillations in a copper still, yet tolerates the presence of a column plate on top of a pot still, “as long as it’s not continuous distillation”. This mirrors Scotch whisky regulations for single malt, which explicitly insist on the use of copper pots but do not explicitly mention neck shape or plates. (In practice, the Scotch whisky rules allow straight-necked pot stills with static plates, like those used at Loch Lomond Distillery, for production of single malt.)

The still house at TOAD

The proposal is currently being reviewed by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the group of producers expects a response within the next six months.

“We’ve worked with DEFRA for over 12 months on an informal basis, then put in our application,” said Ramoutar. “After the review period, if anybody wants to oppose any of the elements we can mediate with them and I suppose something could change, but this is how all 16 producers would like it to be. Anyone who’s got a whisky GI in Britain [United Kingdom] would have an interest in how we define what we’re doing because our GI takes some of the best practices in what they do but also has some differences.”

The still house at the English Whisky Company's St George's Distillery in Norfolk

The EWG was officially registered as a limited company in 2021 and recent regular board meetings led to the creation of the GI proposal. The group now consists of 16 members, 11 of which sit on the board. Its first annual general meeting is planned for April, when the EWG will be discussing its public engagement strategies and the potential recruitment of a CEO.

“English whisky isn’t something that happened three or four years ago. It’s been around for a while; several of my fellow whisky makers are coming up to their 10th birthday,” said current EWG chair Andrew Nelstrop of The English Whisky Company, explaining the reasons that led English producers to team up. “We’re producing some volume now; it is no longer a fledgling industry. Obviously, it’s quite young compared to our northern neighbours but production rates are growing fast and the [English whisky] category has got some momentum. It was time that we came together as a group.”

While most EWG distilleries have been around since the dawn of the contemporary English whisky industry, some are yet to release their first expression, with Derbyshire-based White Peak the latest to enter the whisky market.

The team at White Peak Distillery

What we know so far:

English whisky will have to...

    —Use raw material sourced from the UK

    —Be matured in casks made from wood, but oak is not explicitly required

    —When wood other than oak is used, it must be clearly stated on the product label

Additionally, English single malt will have to...

    —Be batch distilled at least twice in a copper pot still, and straight-necked pots are allowed
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