The Panther Brewery at Reepham in Norfolk is selling an eau de vie under the name Spirit of Panther. It was made with wort used for making the brewery's Black Panther stout and was distilled in to spirit by The English Spirit Company, which has a small distillery in Cambridgeshire. It is not the same distillery as St George's, home of the English Whisky Company.
Spirit of Panther is an eau de vie because it has not been matured for three years in an oak cask. The beer used must also contain only grain, yeast and water, though Panther insists that there were no other ingredients in the wort.
While there is nothing wrong with the spirit itself, CDA director and whisky writer Dominic Roskrow says that the brewery's labelling breaches legislation governing the production of whisky.
Each bottle of Spirit of Panther contains a small piece of wood from a bourbon barrel, and in the weeks since the spirit was bottled the clear spirit has taken on a yellow hue. The bottle label states that this is maturation taking pace in the bottle, and if you were to leave the bottle for three years you would have 'whiskey'.
"This is utter nonsense and is totally wrong," said Roskrow. "Leaving apart the spelling of the word 'whisky' on this drink, malt spirit must be matured in an oak cask for a minimum of three years before it can be called whisky, and maturation cannot take place in any other vessel, including a glass bottle. And it is illegal to add wood chippings or additional oak staves in to the maturing vessel and then call the resulting product whisky.
"As a whisky writer specialising in new world whisky and a director of the Craft Distillers Alliance I am totally in favour of innovation, and welcome new spirits drinks which explore different ways of creating exciting and unusual flavours.
"But as we see more and more products of this nature come to the market we must be very careful not to contravene existing rules. There is nothing at all wrong with Spirit of Panther as a spirit, but it is not - and can never be - whisky."
Martin James of the Panther Brewery said that most of the original 60 bottles of Spirit of Panther had been sold and said the misleading label was regrettable.
"The English Spirit Distillery advised me on the details of the label," he said . "It seems there has been a genuine mistake. We just explained to everyone that bought it how it was distilled and that the oak stave would give colour to the Spirit over time. We also stressed that it could be drunk straight away and it did not need to mature."
The English Spirits Distillery describes itself as an artisan distillery. It is based in the village of Dullingham near Newmarket in Cambridgeshire.
"We pride ourselves on making the best small batch spirits in the world bar none" says the company's website.
The company is about to start maturing whisky in oak casks using the wort from a range of different English brewers, and it already sells an English Spirit single Malt.
The company's website says of it: "We have taken an exceptionally complex wort and distilled to perfection a blissfully complex malt spirit."
Roskrow says that he has contacted the company, which also goes by the name of the English Vodka Company, and has arranged to meet with the distillers in the New Year.
"The people behind this operation are at the frontline of spirits innovation and it's exciting that they are trying new ideas," said Roskrow. "But they are walking on a cliff edge and could go either way. I hope that they intend to stay within the rules and that they really are making world class spirits. If that's the case it's the very sort of operation the CDA would like to have as a member."
John McCarthy head distiller at Suffolk brewer Adnams told Drinks International: “As Dominic points out, the rules regarding the production and maturation of whisky within the EU are quite specific. Also, it is not just contact with oak, but also the permeability of the oak allowing ingress of oxygen and egress of volatiles that contribute to the flavour development of the maturing spirit. The glass bottle would not allow these changes to take place.
“It looks to me that this is a case of lack of knowledge, where a little research would have pointed out what they were doing was not inline with EU rules and will not produce the results stated on the bottle,” he said.
“Whisky is not alone, most spirits and liqueurs have laws governing production which need to be adhered to.”