The Whisky Tasting Club

Craft distilling has got to be about quality

Horror upon horror – I think I’m in danger of turning in to a policeman.

The last piece of work I did before the Christmas break was to highlight the case of a Norfolk brewery which claimed its eau de vie would become whiskey (sic) in three years due to splinters of bourbon cask added to each bottle, and to take it to task for breaking the rules.

And then over Christmas I appeared on the Connosr video blog defending editorial standards and acting as if I’m the high sheriff of journalism tasked with bringing down the bad guys.

How did it ever come to this?

I’ve thought about it a lot over the holiday and have concluded two things. One, somebody’s got to defend standards and the more doing so, the better; and two, it sort of became inevitable when my wife and launched the Craft Distillers Alliance in September.

For while it is true that the CDA represents the spirits industry’s new thinkers and innovators, and those walking the line and where it’s permissible, pushing the line back or even crossing it, for me craft distilling is still all about quality over quantity, about artisanship, diligence and pride. And for this reason quality must underline everything we do.

The question is, how do you square off the need to preserve quality and craft but encourage innovation, new thinking and the development of new products which will put the noses of the establishment well and truly out of joint?

Distillers across the world are already thinking out of the box, asking big questions and refusing to accept that statues and totem poles can’t be knocked over. That’s going to undoubtedly cause the CDA headaches in the future. It’s easy if you’re the Scotch Whisky Association – you build your castle and defend it to the hilt. We don’t have a castle. We don’t even have a nissan hut. We’re a sort of metaphorical travelling circus working on our acts as we go.

But the first marker has been set, and that marker is quality. We will not succumb to the temptation to compromise for more members. To do otherwise would be suicide. Over the coming years we’re going to be challenged constantly on what we do and don’t support and we’ll be asked big questions, many of which don’t have answers yet.

Sally and I agree that we must represent the very best of the world of spirits and must encourage innovative and exciting boutique distilling projects created through love, skill and care. And we must distance ourselves from the rule breakers and short changers operating on the margins and seeking to make a quick profit from the spirits business.

So quality. Trouble is, how do you define it? Finding new ways to do so may well be The CDA’s first major challenge. Some spirits have defined it by age, but does that mean there are no good young gins, grappas or vodkas? Course not. And even in the sectors where age has been important such as whisky, new world distillers are proving regularly that youth needn’t be a barrier to quality.

These are unchartered waters. The Norfolk brewery mentioned at the start of this article is a case in point. The brewery had one of its porters distilled in to an eau de vie by a Cambridge distillery which in 2013 will be collecting wort from various English brewers to make a range of malt whiskies. This is new thinking and on the face of it should be encouraged.
But on the other hand the distillery allegedly advised the Norfolk brewery on the misleading ‘whiskey’ label and is yet to explain what it means by worts – because you can’t make whisky with wort once hops have been added.

We shall see soon which way it’s headed. This is the sort of example which asks big questions of us, but it’s not the only one. On the Connosr interview I expressed my view on the three year whisky rule and Scotch claims on quality, and some American craft distillers are already asking where The CDA stands on the issue.

Some also want support for a campaign to have American whiskey recognised in the same way as Scotch is, and are offering to back us if we challenge the US rules which state that whisky must be matured in new oak. This is obviously ridiculous for single malt whisky, and made the more so because Scotch and Irish whiskey are exempted so their whiskies can be finessed in quality sherry and bourbon casks while English and Australian single malts must be unnaturally tempered to meet legal requirements that are detrimental to the spirit.

As we evolve we will seek advice and help from distillers associations across the world, particularly in America, purely because they are years ahead of us and there are hundreds of them.

But we have to be cautious.

The Americans are facing up to some big issues of their own. For instance, there are craft distillers in the US who are making great whiskey, and there are plenty that are not. But there are also some buying in spirit and rebranding it as their own, often to a high standard, but who are falling out with the genuine distillers of new spirit.

So the question is, should we side with the distillers, even the bad ones, against those who rebrand spirit that already exists, or should we stand up for quality products from any source against poor ones, even ones created artificially from someone else’s whiskey? And if a company in America makes a great spirit using bought in stocks, can – or indeed should -we differentiate between it and any British independent bottler or whisky maker which buys in Scotch to make its drinks, more than one of which we include as members of The CDA?

Across the world there are small distillers taking spirits production in new and exciting areas. They are making new drinks which don’t sit within existing categories and they are creating diverse and often challenging tastes. I consider this to be a good thing. We have welcomed world distillers in to The CDA with open arms.

But there is murkiness on the margins. There are gaps in existing laws, and there will always be unscrupulous operators who will seek to take advantage of them. And equally, there will be well meaning people attracted to the spirits sector who will step outside the rules through naivety and ignorance.

I recall a few years back an affable businessman dipping his toes in to the Irish whiskey market and declaring that he could call all his whiskey ‘pot still whiskey’ because all of it was distilled in a pot still. Technically true, yes, but he was unintentionally proposing a damaging dumbing down of a unique Irish whiskey style and opening of floodgates to every malt whisky producer in the world, offering every one of them the right to describe their whisky as ‘pure pot still’.

There are other issues which are linked to the quality argument and which are potentially massive for us: one, the issue of how long a grain spirit needs to mature before it can be considered a quality whisky; two, whether territories such as the United States should have their own legal definition of whiskey, recognised internationally, as Ireland and Scotland have; and linked to that , three, whether the association is prepared to support sister distillers in other territories who make quality whisky younger than three years old and believe that the the European three year rule is nothing to do with quality and everything to do with barriers to entry and restrictions on free trade.

My personal view is that we should not challenge the three year rule. Such a move would be interpreted as an attack on the high standards of Scotch whisky and would put us massively on the back foot defending ourselves on such a stance. It would damage our credibility and tie us and our American colleagues in to years of legal action and bureaucratic irrelevancies; and it would lead to a battle that would have no chance of success and would offer no great prize even if victory were attainable.

Personally I love innovation and am drawn to those who probe and question any rules or boundaries. But I believe that it’s simpler to invent a new spirits category or come up with a name to suggest how the drink is made without using the word ‘whisky’ than to challenge directly the existing status quo.

But I also believe that we need open minded thinking and new input as to how we judge quality. Because the European three year rule certainly isn’t it. Why? Because for Scotland the bar is ridiculously low. Nobody tries to market Scottish single malt at three years old, and very few do at five, simply because it isn’t very good – as any number of Scotch ‘works in progress’ have demonstrated in recent years. And how can that rule be about quality? How can it be legal under European whisky rules to take a three year old malt, matured in a tired and worthless cask for three years, to drown it in a large volume of grain whisky, matured in a similar cask for three years and a day, to add a shedload of caramel to turn it rich mahogany brown, and then to let it be bottled as blended Scotch whisky? That’s not quality Scotch – it’s coloured vodka.

I find it amazing that the SWA seeks to impose its dubious and challengeable standards on whisky producers from countries such as America, Australia, and India who are devoting time and passion to creating new and high quality whiskies, when it endorses so many worthless and vastly inferior whiskies within its own ranks.

The membership of The CDA should discuss such issues, and ask questions about any definition of quality that does not make reference to cask size or type, to regional temperatures, extremes of temperatures and humidity.

Already some distillers are suggesting other ways of judging quality – chemical or molecular analysis might hold the key – and The CDA should welcome and encourage a discussion of their views. These are weighty issues and it makes the future challenging and exciting. It’s worth stating, though, that no-one wants to undermine or detract from the great whisky that has been produced for centuries in Scotland and elsewhere, and that our end goals – great whisky produced to the highest quality – are the same. But it is about ensuring that those who deserve to be at the high table even if they have got there by an unconventional route, should be allowed to do so. And that those that put all new distillers at risk by undermining the high standards that exist or by stepping outside the rules, should be challenged and stopped.

No pressure then. But hey, wouldn’t life be boring without a challenge? In this letter I’ve given my opinion on some of the issues ahead – but it must be stressed that they are my opinions only and have nothing to do with The CDA at this point. The CDA’s views must reflect the views of our members – so this month we’ll start reaching out to them for their input.

As we start to explore new terrain we need to gather in information from a wide number of other sources, too. In the coming days I’ll be contacting all the founding members with a questionnaire, and at the end of January we’ll be hosting a lunch in London which I would like to turn in to an informal policy forum.

In the meantime we’ll be focusing on more practical day to day issues for The CDA – and to some extent we’ll be playing catch up a little. December ran away from us – doesn’t it for everyone – so the next priority will be to finish off the membership packs with badges and wall plaques, and get them out to members. We need to finalise our plans for the format of our e-zine Still Crazy, which will feature members and reflect their news as they develop. I’m excited about this because in many ways we’ll be recording history as new businesses emerge hand hopefully a new industry is born. Later this month we should be able to publish details of the first two events we’lI be exhibiting at, and we’ll be exploring other events for the future. And in the coming days I hope to reveal news of a sizeable and exciting media initiative for The CDA.

So onwards and upwards with PC Roskrow – and Happy New Year to everyone. Here’s to exciting and dynamic times ahead.

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