Could whisky made in Wales get its own protected status – along with Scotch?
It is on the Christmas wish list for a growing industry in Wales – an industry with an eye on expansion in 2021.
Brexit means rules on what food and drink is protected change in January, with the UK government encouraging producers to engage with them.
Distillers in Wales hope they can make the case to give their whisky its own protection, known as Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
They would join the likes of Welsh lamb and beef, Caerphilly cheese, and Welsh wine, which all retain their legally protected name status.
It means Welsh lamb really has to come from Wales, and Caerphilly cheese must be made in that area.
“It’s really about building the category for all of the distillers in Wales – we all benefit,” said James Wright, the managing director of the Aber Falls Whisky Distillery.
The distillery, which sits on the river fed by the famous waterfall at Abergwyngregyn on the border between Gwynedd and Conwy, is probably better known for its boutique gin brands at present.
But that could all change in spring 2021, when its very first batch of whisky reaches maturity, at three years old.
“Our primary focus has always been about being a whisky distillery with a global footprint,” said Mr Wright.
“Our vision is to build the Welsh whisky category and make it globally recognised.”
He is not alone.
It is 20 years since the Penderyn Distillery became the first Welsh whisky maker in a century, and then launched it to the world on St David’s Day, 1 March, in 2004.
Since then, with its unique single pot still process – based on the edge of the Brecon Beacons – it has become a brand known across the world.
In 2021 it will open its second distillery, only a few miles from Aber Falls, at Llandudno in Conwy.
It is also building a third at a former copper works in Swansea.
“We’d really like it to happen,” said Jon Tregenna from Penderyn.
“Yes, it is a bit of a marketing tool, but it also offers us some legal status.
“A distillery can’t just set itself up anywhere in the world and start making what it calls Welsh whisky.
“So we’d obviously support any campaign for geographical indication.”
In fact, while Penderyn and Aber Falls may be commercial rivals, they have already discussed how they could move the push for PGI status forward.
Draft rules on what a Welsh whisky can or cannot be have been drawn up, and shared with the three other cottage industry distillers in Wales.
But what makes Welsh whisky – well, Welsh?
“I think we’d have to argue that the climate and the water makes Welsh whisky different to any other whisky,” argued Mr Tregenna.
“And I think that is a reasonable argument to make.”
But it is also a challenge.
Scotch whisky is governed by strict laws on exactly how it is made, from ingredients to the number of stills used in the process
But each producer in Wales makes their whisky in their own way.
“It’s important to make sure there is that flexibility built in,” argued the Aber Falls managing director.
“You’ve got to be careful that you don’t write into that indicator what flavour profile a Welsh whisky must have, as we all have different characters.”
James Wright said he wanted to see far more Welsh whisky distillers setting up in Wales.
“We’ve got to make sure we are not putting barriers in the way when we draw up the indicator.”
When the traditionally busy festive period is out of the way, the whisky producers hope they can come together and finalise their case for PGI status.
There is a feeling among them that UK politicians are ready to listen.
Just before Christmas, encouraging protection for Welsh food and drink was being championed by Welsh Conservative MP Virginia Crosbie.
The Anglesey MP secured a debate to highlight produce such as Halen Môn sea salt, while others sang the praises of the newly protected name “Denbigh Plum”.
“I am thrilled that the quality of Welsh food is being recognised globally as well as nationally,” she told MPs.
“In order to mark the enhanced quality of these goods, it is vital that we continue to give them the geographical indicators that inform customers nationally and internationally of their first-class standard.”
In response, UK food and rural affairs minister Victoria Prentis said she wanted the new UK PGI schemes to “to showcase our great British products”.
She said she wanted to see others engage with her department “to help us to identify new opportunities for food and drink producers in Wales, and beyond”.
No doubt, the whisky producers in Wales will be happy to drink to that this Christmas.