Wednesday, 3 December 1980
Seanad Eireann Debate
We have put down an amendment to this Bill which would ensure that the minimum period during which whiskey would remain in the distilling and maturing process would be five years. If whiskey is extracted from the casks in which it is maturing after a period of three years one will get a product that, in the first place, is not a marketable one because a period of three years is insufficient to give it the aroma and flavour we have come to accept in relation to Irish whiskey.
I should like to hear from the Minister the arguments that were advanced to him and to his Department by the distilling industry as to why it was desirable to reduce the five-year period to three years.
There are also other parts of section 1 on which I should like to have clarification. Subsection (3) (i) describes the components that would be involved in the distilling process and in line 26 it contains the words “with or without other natural diastases”.
Mr. Howard: I was hoping that by referring to that the Minister could satisfy me on matters that relate to the amendment which we are putting forward. Basic  to my argument about maintaining the five year maturing period is that if whiskey, or the product, is extracted after three years it is, first of all, a raw product in the sense that it has failed to attain the mellowness that we usually accept as being part of the product. Secondly, it has failed to attain the colour by way of extraction from the oaken and wooden casks, and because of its failure either to have the colour, taste or aroma that we associate with it, we are into the field of additives to correct both these deficiencies. Because of this, I believe we are providing by virtue of including the words “with or without natural diastases” putting additives into the product which, traditionally, have not been used. As I have said previously, once we use additives to correct these two deficiencies we are moving away from the natural product that we have been proud of and into the field of the semi-artificial product.
Minister of State at the Department of Industry, Commerce and Tourism (Mr. Meaney): I listened to Senator Howard moving his amendment and thank him for his observations. However, I cannot accept such an amendment to the Irish Whiskey Bill, 1980. Under existing legislation, that is the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969 administered by the Revenue Commissioners, whiskey produced in Ireland must be warehoused for at least three years before it can be delivered for home consumption. What is being proposed in section 1 (3)(b) of this Bill is completely in line with that requirement. In other words, this Bill does not propose anything new in regard to the minimum maturation period for Irish whiskey; it merely re-states what has been the law for the past 11 years. The requirements about maturation are now being included in this Bill solely because it is considered for completeness sake that such requirements should form an integral part of the legislation relating to Irish whiskey. The inclusion of the requirement about maturation in this Bill does not affect the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969.
I do not propose to go into the full history of the legislation relating to the  maturation of whiskey. However, I should like to point out that between 1926 and 1969 the minimum maturation period was five years, but that, in the latter year, the minimum maturation period was reduced from five to three years under the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969. The latter Act was promoted by the then Minister for Finance who, in the course of his speech on Second Stage in the Dáil stated as follows:
The proposed change in the law is being introduced at the request of the Irish distillers in order to provide them with greater flexibility in meeting the requirements of export markets. Whilst the law we are discussing applies only to spirits sold on the home market it has an indirect effect on exports. This happens because in an important export market like the USA imported spirits cannot be released for consumption unless they are eligible for sale in their country of origin. In the United Kingdom the general minimum age limit is three years. The result is that Scotch whisky and indeed Irish whiskey produced in Northern Ireland may be sold in the USA at three years whilst our whiskey must be five years old.
I should like to emphasise that the considerations which applied in 1969 still apply today and also that the request of the industry in 1969 was influenced by their realisation that public taste at home and abroad had switched to milder types of whiskey which did not necessarily require a lengthy period of maturation to maintain its quality. The maturation requirements set out in this Bill will not alter the character or reputation of Irish whiskey. All the Bill proposes to do is to specify the minimum maturation period which is, in fact, already laid down under other existing legislation. Of course, it should be borne in mind that while the minimum maturation period being specified is three years, many whiskies are, at  the discretion of the industry, matured for far longer periods.
In considering this matter we should also bear in mind that the reciprocal legislation which the UK has enacted provides for a minimum maturation period of three years for both Scotch and Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey will, of course, henceforth cover whiskey produced here or in Northern Ireland. Senators will, I am sure, readily appreciate that in these circumstances it would be illogical to have different minimum maturation periods proposed for Irish whiskey in the South and Irish whiskey produced in the North.
Finally, I should like to say that in a definition of “whiskey” proposed by the EEC Commission some time ago, a minimum maturation period of two years only was suggested. While such a maturation period is not acceptable to the Irish distilling industry it reflects the trend of EEC thinking in this matter.
Mr. Howard: Does the Minister agree that whiskey coming on the market or coming out of the maturing process at three years requires treatment for colouring, aroma and taste that is not required if the product has been maturing for a period of five years?
Mr. Meaney: I do not think so. In discussions which we had with the Irish distillers in the past week it was accepted generally that whiskey is ready for consumption after three years' maturation, and also that there are no additives during or after maturation.
Dr. West: I support Senator Howard on this. The Minister has given an adequate commercial argument for reducing the maturation age but has he taken into account the social problems which are increasing every day, and which I come across in my profession, resulting from the fact that younger Irish people, because they have more money at their disposal, are tending to switch their taste from the traditional drinks of beer and  stout to spirits? It is a very marked switch and distillers are well aware of it.
It seems that the Minister has given a convincing commercial argument for a three year maturation age, but it may well be that social arguments would indicate that it would be wiser if we allowed our whiskey to mature for longer. Abuse of alcohol is on the increase rather than on the decrease. The problem that interests me particularly is the abuse of alcohol among the teenagers and the young, and, as the Minister well knows, this is a problem that is reaching extremely serious proportions. It is a new problem as far as we are concerned.
Serious consideration should be given to the social aspect of increasing the maturation age of spirits, and Irish whiskey in particular, because three-year-old whiskey commercially produced could have deleterious effects. Are there any Irish whiskies on the market at present which have been matured for just three years?
Dr. West: The point is that there could be dangerous social consequences from this. The majority of Irish whiskies with which we are familiar are matured for a much longer period but it seems that if the minimum period is the one that is being used at the moment it may be unwise to reduce it to just three years even though it is bringing us in line with legislation elsewhere. There are serious social problems and the social consequences of this may not have been investigated fully.
Mr. Meaney: It is already reduced to three years. That is the legislation. Since 1969 it can be more than three years. There is for sale in the Irish market whiskey up to 15 years old, as can be seen on the bottle. As regards the social consequences,  or the social taste of our people, you rarely hear people ordering whiskey saying, “Please give me ten or 15 year old whiskey.” They are quite happy to order it by brand. The vast majority of our people are drinking whiskey of a shorter maturation period.
Mr. Meaney: No, it is all on the one shelf. We are all worried about this problem of alcoholism, especially among young people. But the different whiskies in a good bar are on the shelf side by side and you will find that not many people will specify that they get ten- or 15-year-old Irish whiskey. It is not a commercial requirement because in 1969 it was found that both at home and abroad people were switching to milder types of whiskey. All I would say about social drinking is that people should have respect for this kind of drink.
Mr. Meaney: The amendment is to delete “three” and substitute “five”. What is being said here is that we are reducing from five to three. The Senator wants to go from three to five but everybody seems to be saying that it is from five to three we are going.
Mr. Howard: Let me explain it this way. An explanation is called for to some extent. I believe that the Bill now before  us has been arrived at after consultation with the distilling industry and the distilling industry have had a marked influence on the composition of the Bill. There is a marked financial advantage to the Irish distilling industry in that they will be able to put their product on the market, describing it as Irish whiskey, after a three-year maturing period when heretofore it was accepted that the period was five years. That proposition meets the wish, the intention and the desire of the industry. We are here as legislators and we are providing for something which is to be to the disadvantage of the industry. I am not totally happy with the advice we have got and we should not readily accept it. I am not certain that what we are proposing to do here is going to be to the advantage of the industry or to the advantage of the product.
Mr. Meaney: Since 1969 the law has provided for three years. It has survived two Fianna Fáil Governments and one Coalition Government. We are talking about the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969. If Irish distillers wished to avail of that Act and put immature spirits — spirits of less than three years maturation — on the market they could do so. We are providing in this Act that if Irish whiskey is put on the market at three years they have now the authority, and we back it in legislation, to describe their product as Irish whiskey, whereas the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969, did not give authority in law for the product to be described as Irish whiskey.
Mr. Brennan: I want to defend the Minister's point. I have been listening to the debate but I have not studied it in any great detail. There seems to be some confusion about it. I gather from the debate that as it now stands the period of  maturation cannot be less than three years, that it must be a minimum of three years. Is the Senator proposing to increase that to five years?
Mr. Brennan: From the point of view of Senators as legislators generally that is a technical argument on which we can only take the expertise of the Department or the people who are qualified to judge whether whiskey is better at three years or five years. I am not in any position to give an authoritative decision on that, but I am prepared to accept the experience, the back-up services and the consultations which the Department would have had with the distillers. The Minister and his Department seem to be satisfied, after 11 years of trial of leaving it at three years, that there is no technical reason for changing it to five. From the Department's point of view it appears to have worked for the last 11 years.
Professor Martin: While it has worked for the last 11 years, I would argue that the quality of Irish whiskey has deteriorated in that period and, unlike Senator Brennan, I would not claim to be entirely ignorant about the matter. I have conducted some research into the subject and I think there has been a deterioration in Irish whiskey.
Professor Martin: There is one thing about which we could all be pretty naive, and this is why I support Senator Howard. It is obviously less burdensome and difficult for distillers if they can issue their whiskey after three years than if they have kept it for five years. We could end up legislating in a few years time because the  expertise from the trade comes in to us and says, “Ah well, why not issue it after one year?” It is an axiom in the distillation of good drink that time is very important and the more you reduce the time the more you are likely to produce a deterioration of the product. A point which I missed the last day is that there is a universal movement towards a preference for the blended whiskey that tastes mild, that is not matured. Irish whiskey is improving its sales a little because it has entered into that market. I am worried, in regard to the Bill, that under pressure from the trade we may continue to reduce the time necessary for the maturation of whiskey. Coming down from 15 to ten to five to three to two, at the end of the day you are going to end up with Hibernian rot-gut and that is what Senator Howard is concerned about and I support him.
Séamus de Brún: It would appear that what we are discussing now is irrelevant because if the three-year minimum period is right legally according to the 1969 Act, to go to five years, as the amendment seeks, we must first of all amend the 1969 Act. Technically we are discussing something that we should not be discussing at all.
Mr. Howard: Previous legislation was to define it for the benefit of the Revenue Commissioners. We are moving into a difficult and broader field. In worldwide markets and the home market we are setting out for the first time to define what Irish whiskey is and there is need for caution here. I said last week here that this Bill had all the appearance of being rushed legislation. I know that the Minister is doing his utmost to be helpful here today and I accept that, but the fact that it was found necessary to have consultation with the distilling industry in the  past week reinforces my feeling that the matter was not thoroughly checked out in the beginning. I feel that we have been encouraged by the distilling industry to go further than we need in defining what Irish whiskey is, and we are being encouraged to include in this legislation something which will be of a substantial financial benefit to the industry.
Senator Brennan spoke about the technicalities and so on. I am not satisfied yet that I have got an answer to a question that I raised earlier. When whiskey comes out of a traditional type cask after three years the experience is that it has not had time to extract the colouring from the cask and there is need for an additive. It will obtain the colouring during that three-year period if it is put into a cask made of either cedarwood or chestnut, but if it is put into one of these casks there is a problem where the aroma is concerned.
Mr. Howard: I know, but we are legislating. If it comes out of cedarwood or chestnut it has aroma that has to be corrected and again you are into the field of another additive. According to the discussions that took place last week with the distilling industry, what kind of casks is this three-year-old whiskey to be matured in and is it necessary to include an additive to give it a colouring at the end of the day?
Mr. Dowling: I am not an expert on whiskey but it appears that over a period people have been consuming whiskey that has been just three years old and if the Senator's amendment is in order I wonder how is he going to protect the departed spirits.
Mr. Jago: I know something about fermentation but I may not be an expert on the other end, of the use of whiskey. Originally the time of maturing whiskey was related to the way whiskey was made at that time and the maturing was there to make it safe to drink. The word “pot-still” has gone. Whiskey is made by a  different process from that by which it used to be made and, therefore, it can be quite safe from a health point of view to sell whiskey which is three years old, and it is the responsibility of the Government to see that it is safe. There appears to be confusion, going through Second Stage, about the word “milder” as related to “mature”. It seems that whiskey can be made on present processes which is milder in itself and, therefore, can be still mild and fit to drink at the end of three years. We must assume that the people who are manufacturing and selling Irish whiskey know what they are doing and they want to be able to sell it. If they consider that they can be more competitive and still sell a good whiskey at three years, then we should allow them three years. It is not our job to stop them. Our job is to make sure that it is safe. It was not safe to sell straight the original pot still whiskey. Evidently in County Cork, judging by the paper, there was a question of needing three years.
Mr. Meaney: Regarding the kind of casks, whiskey is matured in oak casks, although sometimes in cherry casks. Oak was the old traditional way. We have referred to the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969 but the whole idea of this Bill before us is to update and extend the definition of Irish whiskey which was set out in the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950. The Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1969 which repealed the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1947 states in section 1:
“(1) Subject to the provisions of this section no Irish spirits or foreign spirits shall be delivered for home consumption unless they have been warehoused, in the case of rum, for at least one year and, in the other case, for at least three years”.
It may be interesting to know what the people of that time were saying about it. In 1969 there was no amendment at all to the matter going through. The then Minister — the present Taoiseach — put the Bill through and was to bring the matter into line with international thinking. I  would like to refer to the speech by the late Deputy Sweetman as recorded in column 615 and 616, volume 242, of the Official Report of 11 November 1969 when he said that the Bill was reducing the maturation period from five to three years. I quote:
are satisfied with the proposal put forward by the Minister. As far as I can find out the original term for which spirits had to be kept was laid down in 1915 by British Act, and that Act provided that the minimum period was to be three years. That was changed to the present level of five years by the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act, 1926.
I find it rather odd to note in looking back over the Dáil Debates of that time that the period was increased from three to five years without any explanatory statement by the then Minister for Finance, without any speech from the other side of the House, without any speech from the Minister's side of the House, and that it went through all Stages without any comment.
It cannot be stressed too much, however, apart from the facetious angle to which I have referred, that this will not in any way affect the taste or the quality or the maturity of the whiskey here at home... no matter what the name be.
The people, the Dáil and the Seanad were very anxious in 1969 that the maturation period should be brought down from five to three years. People do not say to me that the maturation period of whiskey should be five years, three years or ten years. Most people seem satisfied as it is. Senator Howard mentioned immature whiskey. I do not know what he means by that. Immature whiskey would be under three years of age and that cannot come on the market. The Bill today is not changing that regulation one way or another.
de Brún, Séamus.
Donnelly, Michael Patrick.
Jago, R. Valentine.
|Lambert, C. Gordon.
Whitaker, Thomas Kenneth.
| Mulcahy, Noel William.
O'Toole, Martin J.
Cooney, Patrick Mark.
Martin, Thomas Augustine.
Reynolds, Patrick Joseph.
Mr. Meaney: This provides for a possibility of using those diastases if the necessity arose. At the moment that is not happening and I accept the word of Irish Distillers generally that there has been no additional course. If something happens in the future we will have to change of course. UK legislation provides for the possibility of additives. Our legislation is different. In the UK legislation the words “with or without” are included. Even if they are included here, there are no additives. I accept that as factual.
Mr. Howard: I do not doubt the Minister's sincerity in his reply. It will be necessary, because of what we have already agreed to do, to bring in additives of one kind or another to improve the marketability of the product and we are, in the words that are here, providing for hat eventuality. While I have no doubt that the Minister accepts the good faith of the distilling industry, the fact is, nonetheless, that we are opening the door. We are probably issuing the invitation by having these words in the legislation. We are issuing the invitation that, if additives are necessary, they may go in, and that you can short-circuit the process because you can correct it by additives.
Mr. Meaney: I do not think we are. This has been the position since the Bill changed and since the maturation period went down from five to three years. I did not get any complaints about it and there is no evidence that that has been happening. There is no reason why it should happen now. There is legislation for anybody who has a complaint. There are Acts under which they can complain to our Department to investigate it.
Mr. Howard: The section refers to spirits which have been maturing in a warehouse in the State or in Northern Ireland for periods the aggregate of which is not less than three years. That, in theory, provides for a transfer of a product from a warehouse in the Republic to a warehouse in Northern Ireland. In providing for the practicalities of this transfer, is the Minister transferring from one type of cask to another?
Mr. Meaney: The whole process of maturation takes place in warehouses under customs and excise supervision. I want to make that quite clear. I do not have to name the company involved and since mature spirits produced in a certain area are being transported to the North, it can take place in the State and partly in Northern Ireland, as long as the aggregate period of maturation is at least three years. All that is under the supervision of the customs and excise.
Mr. Howard: Let us assume it is being transported from a warehouse in Southern Ireland to a warehouse in Northern Ireland. In what kind of a container is it being transported? Does it involve extracting it from a cask here, putting it on to a tanker and putting it into a cask in the North?
Mr. Meaney: It will not be transported in wooden containers but it will have an aggregate period of three years in maturation in the cask. The period of transportation is only a matter of hours but I do not think it will be transported in wooden casks.
Mr. Meaney: It means two things, North and South. That is why the customs and excise have to be so much involved. If it is in one area for a year-and-a-half, it will stay in the other area for a year-and-a-half as well.
Professor Martin: If two things are blended to make up the whiskey — we will call them element A and element B — and we speak of three years being necessary, is it three years for element A and three years for element B? Or is it a year-and-a-half for one and a year-and-a-half for the other and we put them together for the aggregate of three?
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