Sixteen whole years after the revival of English whisky production began, the industry has joined forces to lobby for a geographical indication (GI) from the UK government. But with a modest number of producers, and no set style, is it ready to? And should it?
Though Scotch has long dominated both global whisky production and headlines – with sought-after launches, rare long-aged liquids, and a worldwide consensus that the quality is top notch – in recent years, it has faced increased competition. Creative, high-end producers have popped up across the world over the past few decades, all producing their own unique signature style and offering whisky fans a greater choice than ever before. English whisky, a relative newcomer, is now moving rapidly to secure its place among them.
Of course, many of these new producing regions have looked to Scotch for their methods and standards of production. However, initially unburdened by regulation and free to set their own styles, most have used it as a starting point, evolving to add their own spin. In a highly competitive market, having something that you’re known for and which sets you apart, is crucial.
Which is why English whisky’s attempt to set down the methods it will forever be held to, so early in its rise, is a bold move.
What kick started the English whisky renaissance?
First, a little history lesson… England does indeed have a history of whisky production. However, it’s believed to have wound down around the 1900s, as demand for gin led to distillers either switching production or closing their doors for good. Come the mid-2000s, companies such as The English Whisky Company began its revival.
Today, there’s thought to be around 40 producers. And as of May 2022, at least 15 of them have been represented by the newly formed English Whisky Guild (EWG). With the legal minimum for resting in the barrel set at three years, there’s thought to be around 16 new potential members already in the works. According to the Guild, amongst unprecedented growth – it predicts 189% growth in production from 2019-2023 – there’s now already a need to protect it.
Upon forming, the Guild was quick to launch an application for a GI, aiming to legally define what does and doesn’t make an English whisky, and create a set of production standards that all producers must abide to. Some of its stipulations are that grains must be grown and malted in the UK, and copper pot stills (following the example set by Scotch) must be used for distillation. The Guild claims the move is intended to protect English-produced whisky from fakes it claims have been emerging, while giving the customer a reassurance of quality.
But is it a good move? To answer that requires a closer look at what could be gained, and lost, if it’s granted, as well as a closer look at who the English whisky consumer actually is.
Why do it?
The need for a GI has been primarily outlined as a quality issue. And though that does seem to be at the basis of it, it’s perhaps not in the way you may think. Does English whisky have a stellar, enviable quality of world renown as yet? Do collectors the world over go nuts for its limited editions… its brand new bottlings in lieu of old, rare liquids are not, and cannot be a thing for quite some time?
Truthfully, not yet. Though that’s not to say the liquids are not deserving of them. Instead, English whisky is currently most known for its maverick and experimental approach. Currently some brands are borrowing techniques and methods from beer making, cognac production and of course besides Scotch, methods from other whisky-producing nations such as the US. There’s a number of ryes on the market, ever more creative cask selection, and aging in a diverse array of cask types from sherry to Islay Scotch barrels. In short, each distillery is still in the process of developing an individual style.
Yet, asking for protection at this point in its lifecycle does seems a shrewd move in bringing attention to this fledgling market. Dialling up and promoting the concept that there is already something worthy of copying, and therefore worthy of protecting, reputationally looks good.
The bid however, hasn’t been wholly positively received. It’s true that having a standard in place could better allow for a prestigious market of high value, highly-desirable liquids in the future. But, setting standards that all must abide to at this juncture, could be too rigid… inhibiting innovation and creativity among a young and burgeoning category. And some critics have admonished its authors for sticking too closely to methods that closely align with Scotch.
Yet, it is precisely what differentiates it from Scotch that appeals to its current core consumer. Rather than its multinational-backed counterparts north of the border, thus far, English whisky producers have been small, independent and, free from the burdens/restraints (choose whichever you see fit) placed on Scotch producers. As such, they have had an open floor to be as creative as possible, crucially not just in their liquids but also in their packaging.
A new look for new consumers
Of course, there are no set rules for Scotch packaging, and in recent years we’ve seen brands deliberately modernise to attract a new demographic. However, English whisky skews a little younger in its customer base, and has had a blank canvas upon which it has created its own visual identity. Bold illustrations, bold fonts, bold colours, bold imagery, and branding that looks nothing like any of its other whisky counterparts has so far characterised the young spirit, helping bring new consumers in with its more relaxed approach. Though Scotch packaging is incredibly strong at conveying its prestige and history, those things can act as a foreboding barrier when it comes to pulling new, younger consumers in.
Just look at the recent launch of White Peak Distillery’s first whisky, Wire Works Whisky released in January of this year, and its follow-up Small Batch, which launched this summer and immediately sold out. Implementing cues more akin to craft gin than whisky, it’s bottle structure is a ribbed glass bottle with twisted, rippled neck. Its alignment to gin is no accident, since older millennial consumers who have found their palette during the gin boom are now looking for something more challenging, and more characterful.
If English whisky is successful in setting and protecting the standards which all producers sign up to, it will need to allow space for the maverick qualities that have allowed makers to experiment, and new consumers to feel invited in. Failing to do so risks wiping out the part of its identity that in fact form the crux of its appeal.
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