There is something oddly Catholic about Non Disclosure Agreements, with their omuerta approach to supply – ‘you can have this, but you can never tell who gave it to you’. These common, legally binding documents meant that for many modern non-distilling Irish whiskey brands, a crucial element of a spirit’s identity was immediately out of reach for their marketing – the origin story was a secret, so they had to get creative. They looked to the biggest brands, saw what they were doing, and copied them. This, in turn, led to issues around our credibility at a crucial time in the category’s history, but much of that was a hangover from an era when we were struggling to survive.
Just over a century ago, Irish whiskey was booming. The Scots were in the ha’penny place, we were kings of the spirit world. But times changed – there were wars of independence, world wars, economic wars, and ultimately a change in drinking tastes. Irish was no longer the whiskey of choice, and we entered an almost terminal decline. All over Ireland, distilleries were shuttered. Even the biggest Dublin distillers had to unite to survive – they joined forces, and soon the only operational distilleries were in the south in Midleton and in the North at Bushmills.
But it was the former that had the most impact, as the consolidation of the old firms meant that you had brands like Powers and Jameson that called Dublin home but were being made in Cork. In the case of Jameson, the labels had Bow Street on them until it was changed late last year (the shops still have the Bow Street bottles in them). As the category struggled for survival in the Sixties and Seventies, historic brands were untethered from their spiritual birth places, and geography, provenance and home all became fluid concepts.
To compound matters, John Teeling’s entry into the market with Cooley saw him sell whiskey to anyone who wanted it – this meant that all you needed to put out a whiskey was a brand. So we had limited sources, and many brands. In retrospect, it is little wonder that we ended up with issues around transparency, but it feels like that while the big three players were working out the technical file which governs how you can make whiskey, they might have given some time to coming up with guidelines for selling the stuff too. However, they were all in the business of third-party supplies, so why would they want to start schooling their customers on what to put on the label? But change has now come for whiskey in Ireland, in the form of an official guide from the Food Safety Association of Ireland, in conjunction with Irish whiskey producers. This moment was always going to come, and is a sign of our growing strength. Here, I’m going to offer my own utterly inconsequential thoughts on some of what lies within.
After the intro and a lengthy explanation of labelling with regards to category, it moves on to marketing, which is where it gets interesting:
It is important that any marketing materials (including labelling, claims made and/or terms used) are not false, misleading or inaccurate. The use of voluntary information should be considered in the context of legal requirements under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. Voluntary information is often used as part of the marketing of a spirit drink, where the information and terms used highlight particular messages and/ or attributes that the producer/brand owner wishes to convey to consumers, as part of the promotion of their product. Such information is often used as part of the labelling of the product itself; this includes statements made on the labels of the products themselves, as part of promotion on websites, and/or on other media formats.
Voluntary food information In accordance with Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: Food information (including spirit drinks) provided on a voluntary basis shall meet the following requirements: (a) It shall not mislead the consumer, as referred to in Article 7 (see below) (b) It shall not be ambiguous or confusing for the consumer, and (c) It shall, where appropriate, be based on the relevant scientific data.
The guide then links to an existing document which goes back to 2011, which states: According to Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety (3) it is a general principle of food law to provide a basis for consumers to make informed choices in relation to food they consume and to prevent any practices that may mislead the consumer.
So there have been laws there to prevent shenanigans for some time, but whiskey isn’t the only category that needed to do some housekeeping in this regard – how often do we buy vegetables sold under fake Irish farm names that are actually imported goods? False provenance is an issue across the food and drink sector, but until every consumer has a moment of clarity when they suddenly realise that they don’t really know where their food comes from, things are unlikely to change. But back to Irish whiskey, and the FSAI guide:
In accordance with Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: 1. Food information shall not be misleading, particularly: (a) as to the characteristics of the food and, in particular, as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production (b) by attributing to the food effects or properties which it does not possess (c) By suggesting that the food possesses special characteristics when in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics, in particular by specifically emphasising the presence or absence of certain ingredients and/or nutrients
On that last note, St Patrick’s were already hammered over their claims their spirits were gluten free – as all spirits are gluten free (their pushing of this aspect possibly has something to do with the fact that St Patrick’s started out as a food allergy testing firm). I’ll come back to St Patrick’s later.
The first point in that section is the interesting one, mentioning that whiskeys should not be misleading in relation to country of origin or place of provenance. Now we are getting to the crux:
Any statements on labels that would appear to give the impression of distilling where distilling is not yet taking place is not permitted. Any specific claims made on the packaging regarding where the product was distilled, matured or blended must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims.
This is where we start to enter Irish whiskey’s twilight zone – building a brand to build a distillery. Releasing a sourced whiskey is a common way to raise capital for your planned distillery. Naturally, if you are creating a brand for your future releases, you name it after your future distillery. So you have a whiskey on the market that is named after a distillery that doesn’t exist (yet), or has no mature stock (yet). So how do you shoot straight with the consumer? Look at Tipperary Boutique Distillery and how they handled it – their sourced stocks are released under Tipperary Boutique Selection. The question then is – is there still a chance that consumers might think the whiskey within those releases is from Tipperary, when it is not? How do you counter that, or can you? What about Glendalough Distillery – they actually do have a distillery as they made a small amount of their own whiskey and then went on to create other spirits, and they also have a range of sourced whiskeys – should they have taken the word distillery off their labels until the stock in the bottles was 100% their own spirit? I don’t think so. It seems like this could hobble the development of distilleries. And what if you want to bring out a spirit named in celebration of some local beauty spot – if you wanted to release a single cask bottling under the name Carrauntoohil, is it reasonable to expect that consumers would know it’s a mountain and one that doesn’t have a distillery perched at the summit, or anywhere near it? Again, this is the sort of branding that wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t already have people claiming there is a distillery where there isn’t one.
Back to the guide:
For example: ‘Distilled by St Mary’s Distillery, Dublin, Ireland’: This voluntary text ‘Distilled by’ could be understood to mean that the ‘whiskey’ was wholly distilled in this distillery. ‘Place of manufacture’ as defined in Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 means the place or region where the stage in the production process of the finished product which conferred on the spirit drink its character and essential definitive qualities took place. Consequently, ‘Product of’ can be used if distilling, blending or maturing of the product took place at the named distillery.
This sets it all down in plain English. Don’t say it’s from a place that it is not from. If you know of any brand who is doing this, or who you think might be confusing consumers, contact the FSAI. On that note:
Care must be taken with the use of brand names and company or trading names, which may be taken by consumers to be the name of a distillery (when they are not). For example: brand name – (X Distillery) with an address at St John’s Bridge. This statement could mislead the consumer, as they might think there is a distillery at St John’s Bridge, whereas, in fact, this could just be the brand name of the whiskey. Care must be taken when giving this kind of information, as this implies that the distillery is in a certain location that may not actually exist, and this could potentially mislead consumers, which would be in breach of Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011.
No mention here of the use of ‘distilling company’ as a term – as in the case of Kilbrin Distilling Company’s Kilbrin whiskey, which, the website told us, was from the parish of Kilbrin. I’ve pointed this out before but I’m going to do so again – there is no distillery in Kilbrin, nor are there any plans for one. The brand was cooked up by a subsidiary of Wm Grant & Sons. No consumer could be expected to know by looking at a bottle of the stuff that it wasn’t from Kilbrin, especially since the label also claims the whiskey was distilled and matured by the Kilbrin Distilling Company. This is bullshit. But rather than just make this point on the internet and get angry about it, I contacted the FSAI to see just how serious they were about sorting out this sort of shit. Within a week the branding on the Kilbrin site had changed to a more generic, less geographically rooted narrative (aside from the name, which stayed the same).
Back to the guide, and a note on place:
In the case of Irish whiskey products that use a place name as a sales name or brand name, it is important to ensure that any claims which specify where the product is distilled, matured or blended are accurate and do not confuse the consumer as to place of provenance.
This goes back to my earlier point about place names generally – is there an assumption on the part of the consumer that this is where the whiskey is from? Should whiskeys using place as an identifier offer clarity on whether the whiskey is actually from there? Again, if you are building a distillery in a specific place, then you more or less have to use that as your brand name. But if you are bringing out a whiskey with no plans for a distillery, or some vague plans to possibly build one in the future, then you need to make sure your whiskey has some connection to that place other than vague marketing concepts. And no, I don’t mean the local water used to cut the whiskey down. On the water-as-an-element-of-place move, the guide does include this:
With regard to ‘spring water’, please note that Directive 2009/54/EC on the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters reserves the term “spring water” for a water that meets specific criteria. If an FBO wishes to use this term on their label, they must ensure that the water used meets the criteria set out in this legislation. (See Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/ EC for the specific requirements.)
This is from another part of the FSAI site: The requirements for a water to use the term ‘Spring Water’ are set out in Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/EC on natural mineral waters. Spring water is a description reserved for water which is intended for consumption in its natural state, comes from an underground source, protected from all risk of pollution and is bottled at source. Only very limited treatments are permitted.
So they are even cracking down on the ‘local water’ aspect. Hallelujah.
On to the use of official titles:
Equally, any reference to the distiller must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims. The labelling, packaging, advertising or promotion of an Irish whiskey should not, having regard to the presentation of the product, create a likelihood that the public may think that the whiskey was distilled by any person other than the person who distilled it. A ‘master distiller’ is responsible for the quality of the product that a distillery produces and any reference to a ‘master distiller’ must reflect a person who has acquired such a responsibility and skill set. If using this phrase, the company must explain the meaning of this term bearing in mind Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011.
I think the notion that you can put any name down as master distiller is a side effect of NDAs. Brand owners felt that if they were forbidden from putting the name of the person who distilled it, as it would then reveal where it was distilled, then they could put any name into that slot. Some were clever and used that space for ‘selected by’, some just stuck their own name in there. Avoiding this sort of faux pas really isn’t rocket science – just dress the label up like a distillery bottling but change some of the language. If you’re a bottler, you don’t need a master distiller. In a few years time, NDAs will be less common, and indies can release put a distillery’s name on the bottle, details about the cask, the year, the strength, so much detail that you won’t have room for the master distiller’s name. For the last few decades, we had a market dominated by massive entities with fuzzy logic on their labels (Bushmills’s establishment date being another great example) and a lot of newcomers who thought this was the norm. I’m not saying the mess we had was inevitable, but I can see how it came about. Neither do I want to use a lazy generalisation by saying ‘everyone was at it’ but if you analysed every Irish whiskey label of the last 40 years, you would see how common these sort of fudges were.
The guide rattles through a range of terms, rules, regulations and generally is worth looking over. While the action taken on Kilbrin gave me great hope that they were reining in the nonsense, I was positively clicking my heels when I saw that the FSAI and IWA were tackling St Patrick’s Distillery. Fun fact – St Patrick’s Distillery have been in existence for five years now and they have never distilled, as they don’t have a distillery. The have a dusty gin still, and that’s it. To be fair to St Patrick’s, they do state that they source their whiskey, but the fact remains that they don’t explain that all their spirits are made elsewhere, and that they call themselves a distillery when they are not. They got dragged over this recently in the Irish Times:
When contacted, the company said it made no secret of the fact that it bought “new-make whiskey” from other distilleries and then aged the product in oak barrels by the sea.
“Our view is that the character and personality of a whiskey comes from the barrels it’s been matured in and the location where that ageing takes place,” the company’s general manager Cyril Walsh said.
“We don’t claim to be a distiller but the legal name of the company is St Patrick’s Distillery and our international trademark is St Patrick’s Distillery,” he said, noting that the company was primarily an exporter with growing sales in the US, China, Russia and Canada.
The emphasis there is mine, because my jaw is still on the floor from when I first read that. But the second line is also worth noting, because this notion of over there is central to much of this. Irish whiskey’s market is overseas. The USA is the kingmaker for an Irish whiskey brand, but there are other places. So a certain amount of what went on was fuelled by the notion that people overseas would not rumble what we were up to – Kilbrin is a great example, as when I contacted the FSAI, they weren’t aware of the brand at all, because it seems to be solely aimed at the US market. So there was this idea that the poor foreigners need not know that the placename on the label has fuck all to do with the whiskey in the bottle. Spoiler alert: It’s a small world, and the internet has made it very easy to click a few links and see through this sort of nonsense. I am hearing more rumblings about tourists coming here expecting to find distilleries where there are none. Any brand out there who is selling sourced whiskey with a view to building a distillery needs to make that journey part of the brand – make sure your consumer is informed about your hopes and dreams; help them believe. That way they won’t show up at your lock-up wondering why you only have a forklift and pallets and nary a glimmer of copper to be found.
It is still early days in our resurrection, and while there are still operations like St Patrick’s ‘Distillery’, they are fast becoming outliers – the FSAI labelling rules are there, and they are being put to use. Whiskey is quite a confusing world, and it’s up to people in the know to inform those who might not be au fait with NDAs and the multitude of other factors that make provenance such a minefield. In ten years time, none of this will matter – distilleries will be up and running with maturing stocks, but for now it helps to have people who love Irish whiskey and who understand how it works to ensure people don’t get misled. You can download the guide here, and you can contact the FSAI here: https://www.fsai.ie/makeacomplaint/.