Tension mounts over English whisky GI proposal

A Bristol-based distiller has said proposed rules on the production of English whisky will “stifle innovation”, and claimed the English Whisky Guild’s (EWG) plans are too close to Scotch.

Liam Hirt (pictured), co-founder of Circumstance Distillery, said he has stepped away from the EWG for “lots of reasons”, including over the proposed definition for an English whisky Geographical Indication (GI).

Hirt questioned the draft GI’s stipulation of the use of copper pot stills for English malt whisky.

"No jurisdiction, except Scotland, requires whisky (or malt whisky) to be produced by double distillation in copper stills, because it has no influence on the quality of the spirit,” he said. “If English whisky follows the same Scotch Whisky Association rules, it will remain forever in its shadow.”

Hirt said there has been “a large amount of investment in producing Scotch-style whisky in England”.

He added: “If the proposed rules were adopted, this would serve only to protect the investments of a few, rather than protect our exciting, innovative whisky region as a whole.”

Instead, Hirt said English whisky would be better off “taking the New World route”.

Hirt said he believes the EWG, which was launched publicly earlier this year, had made a “good start”, and had brought a young and vibrant industry together.

"I'd like to see the EWG shift focus from their GI, to promoting England as an exciting whisky region," he added.

Hirt said that by being outside of the EWG, he felt able to provide an alternative opinion.

Bimber Distillery’s Matt McKay, speaking on behalf of the EWG, said the proposed GI, which was submitted to DEFRA in February, has been developed “collegiately, taking input from all 17 members of the EWG”.

“The resulting draft has adopted some of the best elements of standards from other jurisdictions and likewise inputs from all involved,” McKay said. “The proposed GI covers both ‘English whisky’ and ‘English malt whisky’. However, the draft only specifies the use of copper pot stills for malt whisky.”

According to the EWG, the GI is currently going through a review process before being made open for general comment. At this point, there is no public copy of the proposals.

“The EWG believes that the proposed English GI will both promote innovation as well as support the further development of the English whisky category,” McKay added.

Dave Smith, chief executive of EWG member Oxford Artisan Distillery, said the company’s distillery is compliant with the proposed rules “within which we are finding the necessary bandwidth to produce great tasting Oxford rye whisky”.  

He added: “That does not mean we are not sympathetic to the view that the proposed rules do potentially impose limitations on innovation.”

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