Hello again, Lounge types! It will come as literally no surprise to you whatsoever to find out that I’ve been on my travels again! Back in October I was invited to a Whisky Evening at the Merchant Taylors Hall in London by the lovely folks from the Copper Rivet distillery in Kent.
Those of you with your finger on the pulse will no doubt be thinking;
“Hold on, they’ve barely been open a year. They can’t have any whisky ready yet!”
And you’d be correct! The night was a chance to see where the distillery is with regards to their whisky, what they hope to represent with the product, and generally to get to know the team who make it.
It must be said, the Russell family (the distillery’s owners) and head distiller Abhi Banik are doing something very right! The samples of maturing spirit that we were given were very impressive, especially when you consider that all the base grains are sourced within 20 miles of the distillery. Great fruit flavours and balance in such young distillate is extremely encouraging! Rest assured, I’ll be keeping an eye out for their fully matured offerings with a keen eye.
Not only that, but Copper Rivet have also expressed their intention to lead in the instigation of legislation in English Whisky, with the aim of ensuring quality throughout the category. It was at this point that my ears pricked up!
You see, fellow dram fans, there was a time when I wasn’t the mild-mannered, vaguely entertaining [Eh? – Ed.], whisky-drinking journeyman and general pain in our editors’ neck that you’ve all come to know and learned to put up with. I was in fact employed in the finance industry in a regulatory capacity (Yes, Really. No wonder the world’s in the state it’s in etc…). So it seems my past has come back to visit…
I don’t mind telling you, it’s a somewhat thankless task being a regulator. No-one wants to see you, and when they do there’s usually a palpable sense of dread and a visible serving of physical recoil. Inner monologues almost beam out of hard-working staff members’ eyes as if to project across every visible surface the phrase:
“WHY DON’T YOU TRUST ME?! I’VE NOT DONE ANYTHING TO HARM YOU! JUST BUGGER OFF AND LET ME DO MY JOB!”
The assumption being that regulators will happily tell you what you CAN’T do, while being notoriously mute when they’re asked what you CAN do.
The Scotch Whisky Association (Scotland’s regulatory body for whisky) has repeatedly stepped in to the fray and asked for certain products to be pulled for various reasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our friends at Compass Box have a staff party whenever they manage to get a product on the shelves without intervention. Established Scotch distilleries have had their knuckles rapped on several occasions for their interpretation of SWA rules. In short, if you read the press, it’s no simple task to find someone with a positive word to say about them!
So why would a new English distillery be actively promoting the idea of forming a regulatory charter?
Well, industry regulation is supposed to be a tool used to achieve outcomes that would otherwise not be achieved within the market. It can have negative effects, but without a regulatory force markets may not always work properly or effectively. The goal of regulation is to ensure a smooth, fair and honest operation within the industry.
All of this should be designed to promote trust both inside and outside of the industry and, ultimately, to guarantee the quality of the whisky. Proactively making the product more accessible, in other words.
So, regulation. A necessary evil? A thankless and unwanted task for soulless jobsworths? A constructive and mutually beneficial way of industry promotion? A costly process that does nothing but strangle and suffocate innovation? A natural and inevitable occurrence within any successful industry?
The reality is that regulation is ALL those things.
Like it or loathe it, regulation is often responsible for uncovering, correcting and monitoring bad practice. And most of the work done goes utterly unnoticed. We tend only to relate to it negatively because when it fails, it’s very nature is to fail BIG (Horsemeat Scandal / Financial Crash etc….), often due to evolution of the respective industries leading to circumstances that have not yet been experienced. And even then, it’s their responsibility to fix things! (I had nothing to do with the financial crash by the way, honest!).
Which brings us back to the idea of regulating the English Whisky industry.
Clearly, there are questions to be asked and a lot of work to do before this can happen. For starters…
Is the category established/big enough to warrant a regulatory body yet?
Is there enough mutual benefit for all England’s distilleries to get onboard with the idea?
And that’s before we even touch on what distinguishes English whiskies, other than the geographical location of the distillery!
What I will say is that with any regulatory activity (existing, or in the pipeline), the most important thing is open and honest lines of communication, and an emphasis on what IS permitted. Too often, when approached with a clear and reasonable request for a definitive YES or NO answer, lazy (or underfunded) regulators will respond without confirmation and simply quote what restrictions are in place. All this does is promote an assumption of distrust and general confusion. An efficient regulator should take ownership of the issue in hand, be confident enough to say “I don’t know”, and be able to request that any blind spots in policy are attended to, and that everyone who is impacted knows the who, whats, whys and whens.
As ever, in the sainted words of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans “what will be, will be!”. But whatever comes to pass, best of luck to Stephen, Nick, Georgina, Abhi and all the team down at Copper Rivet. It was great to meet you all. Hope to see you on the road sometime soon!
All the Best!