We are wrapping up our Pot Still Irish Whiskey series this week – we’ve gone through it’s historical dominance as a category, it’s nadir during the 20th century and it’s exciting resurgence over the past decade. The first blog in this series went through the origins of Pot Still Whiskey, the second is centred around more recent history.
But what does the future hold?
We touched on how the powerhouses have expanded their old range, resurrected old brands, but what of the newer distilleries? Well it gets a little complicated. If you took the time to read through the 17 page technical file provided in our last post, fair play! If not, let us get you up to speed.
EU gotta know the rules
Firstly, a “technical file” is the official text that “defines” a product under EU law. It is an exhaustive set of parameters that must be met to attain the official stamp of authenticity by its respective governing body. That stamp is a GI or Geographical Indicator. It lays out the processes, ingredients, recipes, physical parameters, whatever makes that product unique, requirements necessary to fall under that category. Simply put, it’s quality control management. It’s there to protect the producers, the farmers, the vineyards, the cheesemakers from being undercut or having their “brand” tarnished by unscrupulous actors making inferior products. It also provides consumers the confidence that they are purchasing something that is the genuine article, safe, made to the highest standards, protected by a tightly regulated environment. Similarly, look at the back of your mobile/cellphone and you see a CE of FCC marking. This is a guarantee for many consumer electronics in much the same fashion.
There are currently 3736 products under management on the European Commission GI register, accounting for over €80 billion in much needed revenue for local agricultural communities. Champagne, Parmigiano Reggiano, Polish Vodka and of course Irish Whiskey, are just some examples prized for their unique region of origin, quality ingredients, and production techniques. Steeped in tradition, interlinked with local custom, the necessity for such stringent procedures is not just due to financial security but equally to cultural significance. These consumable products serve not just as commodities but as an extension of heritage, of provenance. They are the gifts from history.
This is the focal point of our story – where Irish Pot Still, it’s provenance and the GI converge. The Irish Whiskey Technical File was updated in 2014 to include a solid and clear definition of Irish Pot Still. While the declaration was initially promising, it has since regressed into a major point of contention between the old guard of distilleries operating at the time and the motley crew of independent operators today. Whilst all agree on how it should be distilled, in pot stills, the issue lies in the MASH BILL.
“No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
Charles Stewart Parnell, 1885
As it stands, the recipe allows for minimum 30% malted barley, 30% unmalted barley and maximum 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye. This definition was decided upon by the main players: Irish Distillers, Bushmills, Tullamore DEW and Cooley. It was considered the most effective proportions to ensure protection was granted by the EU, while giving some room for future innovation. A sensible approach considering oats, wheat or rye hadn’t been used since the 70s in any major way. The argument against this particular ratio is that it’s too restrictive and doesn’t truly represent Irish Pot Still history. This is technically true, however it just depends on how far you’re willing to look back. Many expressions distilled as late as the 1950’s, such as Old Comber 30 and Wille Napier 44 contained at least 10% oats in their mash bill, so their designation as Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey is in fact false under current rules. So while much of the latter half of the 20th century removed the addition of other cereals into the mix, oats wheat and rye so have their rightful place in Irish distilling history.
There are over 2000 distilleries in the United States. New Zealand and Australia each have over 50 operating distilleries, South Africa’s distilling industry is already worth $600 million, roughly half of Ireland’s and even the English are trying their hand at whiskey. For the Irish category to truly express itself and tackle the saturated “new world” of distilling, heritage must be at the core of everything.The limiting of Pot Still whiskey creates a sizable disconnect with heritage. Ireland isn’t the only country to experience a surge of late. Embracing the range of unique mash bills throughout our history would solidify the category in today’s competitive market.
What Brave Souls Make Traditional Pot Still?
Times are changing rapidly, and with the surge in distilling both at home and abroad this debate has been brought to the fore. Distilleries such as Killowen, Echlinville and Blackwater are not backing down in their belief in “democratising” the Pot Still category, which would include the ratios they are currently distilling. Historical accuracy aside, this is an understandable stance – considering their success as business owners rely on this updated designation. Without it, they cannot label their future aged stock under the coveted Irish Pot Still category, losing out on its demand and price point.
Instead, this liquid could only be sold under the generic term of Irish Whiskey, joining a myriad of blends that are a lot cheaper to produce. Few distilleries are experimenting with innovative mash bills due to this economic uncertainty. Most distillers avoid going “against the grain” so to speak, sticking with the safe option, which may dilute the eventual wave that Irish distilling has to offer in 5 – 10 years time. When stock matures and there’s not enough to meet the demand Pot Still is poised to reach, it is possible the gap will be filled by distilleries abroad who are now producing “Irish Pot Still”. During the course of our research we came across six distilleries that are now experimenting with mixed mash bills, raw barely, oats, wheat and rye. The secret is out. Yes, what was once the most consumed and revered whiskey in the world, will one day soon find it’s throne again, but it might not be the Irish that get it there this time.
Looking to the Future
Nonetheless, there are interesting times ahead. In May of 2021 we will see the coming into force of the Revised Spirits Regulation (2019/787) which will see the current Irish Whiskey Technical File as more of a living document, meaning it will be easier to update with time, and not require confirmation from the EU. There is a middle ground to be found between the old and the new. On that I leave you with the wise words of local whiskey nut, author and all round nice guy, Fionnán O’ Connor:
“…One is a simple 30/30/30 rule. No less than 30% malt, no less than 30% raw barley, and no more than 30% “oats, wheat, or rye”. This would build a cohesive framework encapsulating all the 20th century lost distillery bottlings and certainly the spirit of the 19th century heritage while affording space for distillers to engage creatively with that inheritance while protecting the category from cheap or non-traditional grains….of course, there are other solutions too– but as it stands the conversation is not even being had. Or, it’s not being had in Ireland anyway.”