Thursday 10 April 2014

The Irish Whiskey Association

I spied an original 1887 edition of Alfred Barnard's Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom yesterday.
The archivist from Irish Distillers in Midleton had brought it along to the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) and it was very appropriate to the occasion. Barnard's tour is both a 19th century record of past glories in Irish distilling and an aspirational document for today describing an island dotted with dozens of world-renowned distilleries.

Eighteen whiskey companies have joined forces under the IWA banner to make sure that aspiration becomes reality. Most were represented at the launch, where multinationals mingled with micro-distillers and grizzled veterans gossiped with the young guns.

That itself is one of the main purposes of the new organisation: to diffuse knowledge among the member companies, and especially to the new market entrants. It's already happening and I have heard very nice things said about Irish Distillers and Bushmills, for example, regarding the generous help they have supplied to those setting up. I picked up a hard-won tip myself yesterday from Alltech's Jack O'Shea on burnishing copper stills; a myriad of such details contribute to the efficient operation and maintenance of a distillery.

The established companies' willingness to mentor the up-and-coming stems from, I think, a mix of altruism and a reasonable desire to see that the new players reinforce Irish whiskey's reputation for quality.

Bring it, Scotland

Nothing unites, of course, like a common enemy, and that enemy is... Scotland. I jest but we certainly envy their heft in the business. They shipped 93m cases of whiskey in 2013, compared to our 6.2m. If we want to take them on we have to band together to promote and protect the category worldwide. Scotland has an industry organisation that does this, namely the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). The SWA stalks the planet scrutinising bottle labels for illicit suggestions of tartan that might mislead the unwary into thinking they are buying Scotch.

Some IWA members have already felt the displeasure of the SWA. If I recall correctly, for example, Cooley once tried to use a local placename (Glenmore?) for a new whiskey. The SWA objected, claiming ownership over anything with 'Glen' in the name.

That was a stretch, perhaps, but one of the strongest defensive measures that the IWA can deploy is the Geographic Indication (GI) for Irish whiskey that is defined at EU level. The IWA is currently working on technical files to be lodged with the Commission that will nail down what does and doesn't qualify as Irish whiskey under this GI. Trade agreements between the EU and other countries ensure that our GIs are respected on other continents. I believe we can also look forward to the restoration of the term Irish Pot Still in law, which has been missing (and occasionally misused) since 1980.

Recruiting government

The IWA will also represent the whiskey industry's interests to the Irish government. This seems to me its most challenging task. The Minister for Agriculture, Food & the Marine, Simon Coveney, formally launched the association yesterday. He seems like a decent chap, genuinely batting for Ireland and Irish products abroad. I have long admired what Bord Bia - under his department - does for craft food producers and I understand they are now taking a greater interest in artisan spirits.

From the minister's speech, I took it that his interest in whiskey was export earnings, tourism and jobs. He understands too the benefit to Ireland's image from quality, craft products like whiskey. What I didn't pick up especially was an appreciation for whiskey as a drink.

It would be unreasonable to expect the minister to consume everything he helps promote but I wonder if anyone in government enjoys a measure. It's hard to imagine they do when they actively try to prevent Irish people drinking it. Every year, after the Budget, I describe the level of VAT and excise duty on whiskey as theft rather than tax. Only Monty Brewster with his millions can afford to throw his money away on decent whiskey in an Irish bar. It's fine, apparently, to send this demon spirit abroad to corrupt foreigners but Irish people are to be priced out of developing an appreciation for it.

It's sad that few in Ireland know anything about their native spirit and that even those who do take a whiskey often confine their explorations to Scotch. It does not help the export and tourism markets when the Irish themselves are such poor ambassadors for Irish whiskey.

So I'd like a champion for Irish whiskey at the cabinet table, advised and encouraged by the IWA, who can curb the worst excesses of the finance and health ministers and return the slow - inherently responsible - enjoyment of craft Irish whiskey to the Irish people.

The members

There are 18 founding members of the IWA: Alltech, Burren Irish Whiskey, Carlow Brewing Company, Castle Brands, Gruppo Campari/TJ Carolan, Beam/Cooley, Diageo/Bushmills, Dublin Whiskey Company, First Ireland Spirits, Glendalough Irish Whiskey, Great Northern Distillery, Irish Distillers, Slane Castle Whiskey, Teeling Whiskey Company, William Grant & Sons/Tullamore DEW, Walsh Whiskey Distillery, West Cork Distillers and Wild Geese Irish Whiskey. It is an all-island organisation.

Headed by Aoife Keane, it comes under the Alcohol Beverage Foundation of Ireland, itself part of the business group, IBEC. The founding chairman is Peter Morehead, moonlighting from his day job as Production Director at Midleton.

Irish Whiskey Association members celebrating the launch. Photo courtesy of the IWA.
There are some very familiar faces in that "family" photo, savouring a landmark moment in the renaissance of Irish whiskey. How many can you recognise?

It was a very enjoyable launch event (with tea and coffee the strongest drinks consumed!) that finished long before I had a chance to interrogate everyone. Besides catching up with some old friends of the blog, I spoke for the first time with Campari (who recently released Irish Mist Whiskey), First Ireland Spirits (makers of Dubliner Whiskey Liqueur, and recently acquired by Quintessential) and Burren Irish Whiskey (which wasn't on my radar at all but sounds very promising). I also note that Carlow Brewing Company (ie O'Hara's) is a member in its own right, separate from Alltech, whose stills they are hosting temporarily. Is that a hint of something exciting in the works?

The new association is a huge leap forward for the Irish whiskey industry. I congratulate Aoife and the founding member companies for making it happen and wish them continued success around the world with this greatest of Irish products.