Yet Another Post About Whiskey Labels

How would you define whiskey production? Is it growing the grain, is it the distilling, is it choosing the casks and controlling the maturation? Is it the brand building, the marketing, the bottling, the distribution, the selling? Is it a combination of all these things or is there an a la carte option where you can say you produced the whiskey if you finished it and sold it under your own brand? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years – are creation and production two different things? And if you didn’t create a whiskey in any technical sense, can you claim to have produced it? 

Imagine you got some old whiskey stock, maybe you tweaked it a bit, recasked it, finished it in something weird and wonderful, changed it a little (or not at all), and now you want to sell it while increasing awareness of your brand. So you stick your distillery’s name on the label and away we go. Your distillery, however, might not even be built, or might have just started distilling. If your sourced whiskey wins an award, you puff your chest, high on stolen valour, and say, look on my works ye mighty, but don’t look too closely because it’s not technically my work.

Of all the things I have written about in Irish whiskey, few have consumed so much of my energy (or wordcount) as this topic, which goes by a few names – transparency, provenance, honesty, call it what you want, but I have swung from complete frustration about the practise to understanding that it is the growing pains of an emergent industry. Irish whiskey’s light was almost snuffed out, and it took a lot of wild pivots to keep it alive. You can go back and read some of my conjecture on the subject, but on the subject of labels I would say this – the holy trinity of Irish whiskey all had label or branding issues – Jameson was no longer made in Bow Street despite that address being on the label until recently, Tullamore DEW was no longer made in Tullamore (but soon will be from there once more), and ‘Old’ Bushmills was not founded in 1608 – so if you take that as a jumping off point, it is little wonder we ended up with smaller non-distilling producers (NDPs) becoming confused about what was acceptable.

I don’t think any NDP sets out to deceive, but there are so many little white lies in Irish whiskey that it’s hard not to draw the overall conclusion that change is needed. 

I also understand the financial dilemma facing most new distilleries here – in Scotland you can approach a financial institution and say we want a massive amount of capital, and you won’t see a cent of return on that investment for five to ten years. We don’t have that long-standing culture of distilling here – so I would imagine accessing funds could be something of a challenge. Easier then to generate revenue through selling sourced whiskey, and at the same time build your brand. 

There are many distilleries here that have been built by selling sourced stock under their own name. But what is the difference between using the name of a planned or new distillery and using the name of a distillery that does not exist? Schrödinger’s Distillery – a distillery that both exists and does not exist at the same time. If St Patrick’s got hammered over their use of ‘distillery’ on their branding and labels, they could have avoided it by bunging in some plans for one early on. 

Does the end justify the means? I think not. In fact, I think it massively devalues a brand when they have been selling sourced stock under their own name and then suddenly shift to their own youthful spirit. I know I give far less of a hoot about indigenous spirit from Distillery X when they have been flogging Bushmills, Cooley, and Great Northern for six years.  

In an ideal world, no distillery would be allowed to put their name to a sourced liquid. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have fake farms either, but whiskey is different – I don’t care about what the branding is on my fake farm veg because I’m not paying premium prices for it, but if I am expected to pay Irish whiskey prices, I do expect some level of transparency. I expect that you don’t pretend, or endeavour to create the illusion, that you made the liquid in your bottle when you did no such thing. 

Provenance has become a hot topic here – guidelines were released which made it clear what could and could not be printed on a label.  

As detailed in a previous post about the guidelines, I made a complaint about one brand and it was changed within a week. So the system is there if anyone wants to complain. And obviously, somebody does, and somebody felt their complaints were not being acted upon domestically, so somebody took that complaint to the EU. 

In June of this year, Deputy Catherine Connolly wrote to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue asking ‘if his attention has been drawn to the fact an association (details supplied) has taken a complaint to the EU against his Department alleging non-enforcement of regulation (EU) 2019/787 with regard to a lack of enforcement of spirits provenance regulations resulting in multiple incidences of false provenance information being provided on products that fall under a protected geographical indication designation; his views on the matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter.’

And a statement is what he made – you can read the full version here, but this is the pertinent part:

‘Since January of this year, the Department has assumed responsibility from the Health Service Executive (HSE) for the assessment and approval of labels for Irish Whiskey and Irish Poitín. When assessing Irish whiskey labels, the Department assesses ‘provenance’ under Article 7(1) of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, which states “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”.

‘Where uncertainty arises regarding who or where the product is produced, the Department seeks clarifications from the FBO. Furthermore, where FBOs are not directly involved in any of the stages of production, the Department does not approve the label unless it states that the product has been ‘produced for them’, as opposed to ‘produced by them’. Additionally, the Department does not permit references to Distilleries that do not exist.’

If the Minister’s response in June was a warning shot, apparently it went unheard. As reported in the Sunday Independent, an email circulated recently to Irish Whiskey Association members stated that the IWA had ‘recently become aware’ that since the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) assumed the role for label approval as part of the verification process for Irish Whiskey in January of this year, ‘the dept have been imposing new requirements for brand owners or those who have not produced their own whiskey’.

“These requirements consist of stating “produced for” on the back of the label even in cases where there is no claim as to provenance,” the email stated, adding that ‘the imposition of these requirements were not discussed or communicated to industry’. 

“Furthermore, we believe that this requirement should not be mandatory,” it stated.  

It should, though, because this requirement is about the most basic level of transparency one could hope for – that sourced whiskey is declared as such, in small print, somewhere on the label. Because you know what you get when that isn’t the case? This: 

It’s worth a read through that whole thread as the brand explain the situation, but the overall message from the person who posted it is clear – if it isn’t explained clearly on the label that this is sourced whiskey, then no amount of ‘we’ve always been very clear about sourcing’ will explain away what looks like a deception. Whiskey isn’t white label software, you don’t get to rebadge it and sell it as your own – it is intrinsically tied to its source.  Then there is this:

Chaos indeed.

Obviously, sourcing whiskey isn’t as simple as these cases – take Bushmills white label, AKA their blend. Bushmills doesn’t have a grain distillery (they are in the process of building one) – so they source that component from Midleton. Should they put ‘produced for Bushmills’ on the label because one key ingredient is from another distillery? What about the Method & Madness single malt from Midleton – which was distilled in Bushmills – would that be a ‘produced for’ also? What about Paddy? ‘Produced for’ Sazerac? 

Whatever about difficult decisions, I think that if we want to be taken seriously, this needs to happen. If it affects sales then so be it (I honestly don’t think it will). We can’t build this glorious resurrection on the omission of the truth. But this change could affect a lot of other spirits – how many Irish artisanal gins are made by the same industrial producer? How many are mostly neutral spirits cut in a gin still with the proverbial local botanicals? Where is production in those cases? 

With this case going to the EU, it’s important that producers here get their house in order. Consumers want more clarity and provenance in what they eat and drink, and anyone paying the prices Irish whiskey producers charge deserves the truth. 

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