Shouldn’t We Keep Poitín and Irish Whiskey Irish?

It feels like no time ago that we discussed the Irish Whiskey Technical File and the wider issues within it. What we haven’t talked about, though, is the Irish Poitín Technical File, its Geographical Indication (GI) and proper representation. As with the Whiskey Technical File, the way it has been compiled has led to some criticism, as it deviates from historic distilling practices in some areas. Crucially, though, it is seen by some, including our most creative distillers, as stifling ingenuity. Additionally, the file has just been the centre of a Twitter row which we will try and unpack for you.

Those within the Twitter whiskey world will be aware of the recent outcry from Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn, the oldest craft distiller in the US. The clamour was regarding an ‘angry’ cease and desist letter from the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) over one of their products. At this point, it is unclear which one as the letter refers to the ‘Irish Style American Whiskey’ (they have a whiskey and a poitín both released as ‘Irish style’). The letter from the IWA insists that the product “creates confusion or attempts to mislead customers into thinking they are buying Irish Whiskey”. However, Kings County have said they had taken great lengths to communicate the origin of their whiskey, a statement they are proud to make, so what are the actual issues then? It centres around the term Irish-style; there is no protection over that term. Kings County co-founder Colin Spoelman argues that Irish should not be a protected term like Scotch, Champagne or Port and that there may be a stage when it becomes untenable to have hundreds of protected European styles of whisk(e)y.

What does GI status actually mean?

A geographical indication (GI) is an IP right used on products that have qualities or characteristics attributable to a specific geographical origin. The most famous amongst them are the likes of Scotch, Port and Champagne. They’re important as it guarantees a product’s characteristics or reputation, authenticity and origin. They’re valuable, intangible and promote cultural heritage. Member states submit a technical file to the European Commission for each GI to be approved, which was the case back in 2016 for Irish whiskey and Irish Poitín.

Is this an attempt to capitalise on a booming Irish Whiskey market?

It may be helpful to delve into some context regarding the product. The particular whiskey was a distillery-exclusive single barrel, not a flagship product nor a regular batch that Kings County is trying to profit from. This was merely an attempt to inculcate “education” by “honouring Irish distilling tradition” rather than an attempt at avariciously capitalising on Irish whiskey’s recent revival. It’s also worth pointing out that all labels must survive scrutiny by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which Kings County’s lawful regulator approved; therefore, does the IWA have any jurisdiction over them? It’s unclear: the GI is represented by Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Agriculture. Any such violation would have to be considered by them, and authorised department officials should, in consultation with the relevant authorities in the US, carry out selective site visits to ensure compliance with the technical file requirements; therefore, it’s unclear why the IWA is getting involved.

What exactly is ‘Irish Style’, and what’s the issue?

What exactly were Kings County trying to do creating ‘Irish style whiskey’? According to Kings County, this specific whiskey was distilled three times and made with malted and unmalted barley, suggesting its ‘pot still’ origin. The purists amongst us would concede that this isn’t actually Irish style and the majority of older ‘true’ Irish whiskies were double distilled and peated too. However, the question begs, why wasn’t the whiskey given the designation of a pot still? For example, Talnua distillery in Denver, Colorado, distils their whiskeys and gins using Pot Still distillation methods. Whilst they suggest that they are “true to Gaelic-style distilling tradition”, they do not mention this on their packaging but affirm it on their webpage. It’s perhaps that many Americans may not appreciate the true origin of pot still style whiskey. Maybe Kings County wanted to fully associate their spirit with being Irish, as Kings County asserts that all of their whiskies are ‘pot still’ anyway. Misleading whiskies are nothing new; Canada’s Crown Royal released a ‘Bourbon Mash’ blended whisky, further increasing the ambiguity between what it is and isn’t a particular style.

You may also recall the issue of Brendan Carty and Killowen having to ‘Sharpee’ their labels given the ‘discontinue’ call from the IWA regarding their interpretation of the ‘misleading’ age statements provided by Brendan on the back of his experimental series. Equally, the IWA were quick to act. Whilst it isn’t on the same scale as a ‘cease and desist’ letter, the argument surely should be, is the reaction proportional to the ‘crime?” Surely the best response would have been to phone, message or email to disentangle the mess: are we not all on the same side in Ireland, i.e., trying to encourage creativity, balanced with protection, but with the ability to distil with a certain degree of freedom knowing the comprehensive nature of the GI?

What is the real issue here?

In this writer’s opinion, it all comes back to the technical file. We talked about the Whiskey Technical File before, but the Poitín version is equally as frustrating and antiquated, even though it was written just seven years ago. As we know, poitín was granted GI status; however, most annoyingly, the status only applies to ‘Irish’ poitín, meaning the designation of ‘Irish’ is required to make it legally binding. Any distiller can call anything poitín because of this. So, the question begs, “Does the Poitín technical file require updating?” It could be argued that this is an oversight and one that could be exploited by non-Irish distillers if not rectified soon. The same goes for the whiskey technical file. Although this has been updated, is there an argument to prohibit any indication of Irishness if it doesn’t come from the island of Ireland, or is that too far? Just look at Mariah Carey’s use of the name ‘Black Irish’ for her new cream liqueur, which celebrates her heritage rather than the origin of the spirit, and even Conor MacGregor, whose underwhelming ‘Proper 12’ has nothing to do with being 12 years old: it’s a nod to the “12” area code in Dublin where McGregor grew up. My point is that there are many ways and means to get around technical files; they need to be watertight.

Should Poitín only be distilled in Ireland?

In this writer’s opinion, yes, but I can also view it from the other side. As mentioned, Kings County are a craft distiller and therefore do not produce in bulk to the standards of some of the other bigger companies. What if it were to be called American Poitín? Would this really cause much of an outrage? As Colin says, it’s paying tribute to a way of making whiskey, which can only be a good thing for the Irish market given the American tourism there.

What needs to be done?

Kings County’s Colin Spoelman seems perfectly reasonable in everything he has commented about the issue so far. He is ambivalent about whether to change the label; it’s been approved by the TTB. He understands the problem about GI status and, in my opinion, has taken to Twitter to allow a healthy debate regarding it. He rightly points out that too much protectionism may end up stifling creativity, particularly in craft distillers, of which we can all agree; Brendan discussed this during our interview with him last year. Maybe it’s time to bring this topic to the table; let’s actually talk about the issue rather than getting confrontational. Maybe there is something wrong with the files hence the mishaps that keep raising their ugly heads.

The team at Water of Life would support the redraft, and, with the Poitín industry still in its infancy, changes can be made now without too much disruption. If the debate is delayed, though, these issues will become baked in and much harder to resolve.

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