Tuesday, 28 April 2015

(What's not in) The Technical File - Part 3

I've been flipping through the Irish Whiskey Technical File in recent posts (part 1, part 2). The document is a map of the Irish whiskey landscape, compiled by the industry and its trade body, the Irish Whiskey Association. The Department of Agriculture endorsed it and lodged it with the EU. It's now a map with legal force, staking out territory defensible at home and abroad.

The rest of us should now ponder what we have signed up to. If we are to place our gunboats on standby, it should be in the service of something we believe in. That "Irish" in "Irish whiskey" belongs to all of us, and we should be sure it reflects the best of us.

Irish whiskey has been and is an excellent ambassador for this country. That said, there is room for a few improvements that the industry is unlikely to push through by itself.


Irish whiskey is sometimes described as nothing but grain, water and time. That's an attractive, simple message. It comes with an asterisk, however:
 * may also contain E150a, also known as plain caramel colouring.
The technical file is up front about the use of colouring. Whiskey matured in wood naturally varies in colour so a small, variable amount of caramel is added to each batch to produce a consistent final tint for bottling.

It's done because consumers in some markets equate inconsistency with fakery. Since counterfeit alcohol can be poisonous, that's a fair concern.

The technical file calls the use of caramel a traditional practice, dating back to the 19th century.

There are two problems with the use of colouring:

  1. It undermines the authenticity of the product. If you would monkey with the colour of the whiskey after the fact, what else would you do? Consumers will never accept this practice as above board.
  2. Caramel is used by large well-known brands in small amounts, without affecting flavour, and this is the use case cited by the technical file. However this has opened the door to the heavy-handed use of caramel in minimally-aged whiskey to fake the appearance of something far older. This is not good for the reputation of Irish whiskey.

We have come a long way since the 19th century. Careful wood management and computer-controlled charring of casks must reduce the colour variation problem. The vatting together of a huge number of casks for the likes of Jameson, must also skew colour towards the average. I feel certain that the folks at Midleton - among the smartest in the business - can figure out how to eliminate the residual need for caramel.

On the retail side, there are packaging measures that would reassure consumers they have the genuine article in their hand.

Grain Origin

Part of the Irish self-image is that we are an agricultural nation with land suited for, among other things, growing grain. It's not an accident we've been making whiskey as long as we have. The raw material is abundantly available.

So the technical file surely guarantees that Irish whiskey is made from Irish grain grown by Irish farmers, correct? Nope. There is no requirement that any of the raw materials come from this island.

In practise, most of the barley used - malted and unmalted - is properly Irish. (The exception is peated malt which must be imported from Scotland since we don't (yet) have any maltsters willing to produce that).

Barley field. Image copyright Richard Webb.

At some point in recent decades, however, a brutally unsentimental decision was taken to feed the column stills with maize from the south of France. Our grain whiskeys and blends, therefore, are more than a bit French.

The long-defunct Irish Whiskey Act of 1950 made a gesture towards farmers, specifying that Pot Still Whiskey had to be distilled from "a mash of cereal grains such as are ordinarily grown in the State". The grain didn't have to be produced here (allowing for a duff harvest, perhaps?) but at least it could be. With maize we have dropped even the pretence of a native grain because we just don't have the sunshine to grow it here. (Though I have hopes.)

We could substitute Irish-grown wheat for maize. If we fudge the meaning of "Irish" in a protected term like "Irish whiskey", we devalue its meaning in other contexts too.

Mystery Whiskey

An EU geographical indication implies tradition, skill and quality. There shouldn't be anything vague about a well-crafted Irish whiskey. What is there to hide? I would like to see these two pieces of information on bottle labels:

  1. Ingredients: the grains used and caramel, if present.
  2. Where it was distilled. In a few years' time there will be dozens of low quality Irish whiskeys made under contract for private labels and released at close to minimum age. (With a suspiciously deep colour too, no doubt.) It's going to be a lot harder to tell the good stuff from bad by looking at the bottle. Consumers around the world can't be expected to know if the placename on the front corresponds to an actual distillery location or if it's just there to mislead. So make it clear.

Aim High

None of the above is unique to Irish whiskey. It applies equally well to Scottish whiskey. Wouldn't it be a nice point of differentiation to be able to say, for example: "Irish whiskey differs from scotch in that no additives are allowed and it must be made from locally-grown grain"?

There is an opportunity to decide what we want "Irish" to stand for, not just with regard to whiskey, but across all our endeavours. We should hold ourselves to the highest of standards.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Whiskey or Whisky? The Technical File - Part 2

The Irish Whiskey Technical File (see yesterday's article) takes no sides on the spelling question. Label it Irish Whiskey or Irish Whisky, according to your like or dislike of the letter e.

I think that's a mistake.

Yes, I know that up until little more than three decades ago, the non-e variant still had some currency in Ireland (Paddy Whisky was the last holdout). But then the one remaining distiller on the island standardised on whiskey and every Irish whiskey brand since then has embraced the convention.

It is a wonderful, accidental gift to marketers that should not be lightly relinquished. Those in the distilling business forget, I think, how mysterious and intimidating whiskey is to the uninitiated. What's it made from? How do you turn grain into alcohol? What does an age statement mean? What's the difference between bourbon and scotch? And so on.

The one tidbit of knowledge that people around the world find easy to latch on to is that Scotland spells it whisky but Ireland prefers whiskey. The to e or not to e thing appears in myriad forms in the headlines of hundreds of articles. It immediately establishes that Irish whiskey is somehow distinct from scotch. And it is a beachhead from which the curious can strike out to explore a new landscape.

There are already those in the Irish distilling game plotting to erase this fortunate distinction. Peter Mulryan of Blackwater Distillery has declared for the opposing side. Everything he says in that article is correct. Yes, it's pure marketing. But that's more than enough reason to preserve the e.

On a related topic, I would like to commend the hidden hand who added this line to the Technical File:
The customary term for the plural of Irish whiskey is "Irish whiskeys".
Yes! Not whiskies. That would be the plural of whisky. This shouldn't be news to anyone; we are just following the most routine conventions of English. But it's regularly stuffed up by all the distilleries in press releases and other marketing bumph. The Irish Times gets it wrong. The Irish Whiskey Society gets it wrong.

I often see both whiskies and whiskeys in the same piece, which proves it's not a conscious choice, just carelessness.

So, choose whisky or whiskey when you pick up your pen. But whichever one you select would you please confine yourself to the correct, corresponding plural. Thanks!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Irish Whiskey: The Technical File - Part 1

Until now we've been making do with the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 to know what is and isn't Irish whiskey. It has the merit of being a quick read but it comes from an era when there was only one distilling company on the whole island and we weren't shifting much of the wet stuff. Not much nit-picking over definitions back then.

Today we have dozens of operating and aspiring distillers, and Irish whiskey is coining it globally. We have something worth protecting and nurturing in a competitive world, and that means shoring up the legal underpinnings.

The EU is useful here. It confers Geographical Indication (GI) status on many of Europe's distinctive regional food and drink products. A GI provides a means to protect against knock-offs in other member countries and, via trade agreements, in much of the rest of the world.

Irish whiskey's GI status comes with a requirement for a "technical file" that details terminology, ingredients and production practices. One of the first tasks of the Irish Whiskey Association - formed just last year - was to hammer out this document with input from industry players. The Department of Agriculture adds the imprimateur of the Irish state and submits the file to the EU.

I've been reading this recently completed technical file and have picked out some highlights. There's plenty to say so I'll spread it over a few articles.

Disclaimer: this is my interpretation of the new rules. I'm open to correction.

What isn't new

In one sense, nothing has changed. If you follow the recipe in the 1980 Irish Whiskey Act you will end up with something you are still entitled to call Irish whiskey.

What is new

Various sub-categories of Irish whiskey have been defined for the first time. These are already in general use and are broadly understood, but the definitions include some welcome clarifications. Let's have a look...

Irish Pot Still Whiskey

Whiskey terminology is often confusing but "Irish pot still whiskey" seems particularly perverse. It's not simply Irish whiskey made in a pot still. If it were, then malt whiskey would be pot still whiskey. But it isn't. Cooley tried that one on a few years ago, to general disapproval.

There was a half-hearted legal definition up until 1980 but it's so general it's neither very useful, nor very accurate.

Midleton is the only distillery currently bottling pot still whiskey and is also heir to some of the great pot still producing distilleries of former years so the new definition no doubt owes much to their knowledge of both current and historic practice.

We now know that pot still whiskey must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley, and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley. Up to 5% can be other cereals "such as" oats and rye.

5% seems low to me but I don't think this stifles innovation since you can use whatever grain mashbill you like (within the terms of the 1980 Act) and still call it Irish whiskey. Just not necessarily Irish Pot Still Whiskey.

Irish Pot Still Whiskey is batch distilled "usually in large pot stills". I don't know why they bothered with this qualification, since it doesn't preclude small stills. It makes a supposedly neutral document look a little Midleton-skewed as "large stills contribute to a unique range of reflux ratios that lead to the formation of a distinct flavour and aroma profile in the spirit". A pre-emptive dig at new, smaller competitors?

I expected a little more clarity on still type here because some of the new producers have apparently been getting the stink eye over their choice of a hybrid still (a flexible design with a very short column mounted over a pot). The technical document is silent on this matter.

Now here's a surprise: pot still spirit is not entirely distilled in pot stills! The technical document has to describe actual practice and it turns out that the column still enjoys a minor walk-on part in this sub-category. The residues left behind after pot distillation may contain alcohol. A column still can efficiently reclaim that alcohol, which can be used to augment a subsequent pot distillation. It sounds like a pragmatic measure to improve the energy efficiency of the whole process, and reduce waste. I'm all for that.

The file allows for double or triple distillation and, while it notes that the malted barley used currently is unpeated, it does not prohibit the use of peated malt in a pot still mash.

Irish Malt Whiskey

No surprises here. 100% malted barley is specified, peated or unpeated. For some reason the malt comes from "dedicated malting companies", which hardly seems essential. I reckon that statement will be falsified by at least one of the new distilleries malting its own barley.

Irish Grain Whiskey

We discover that grain whiskey may include no more than 30% malted barley (it always has some, to provide the necessary enzymes). It also includes whole unmalted cereals, usually maize, wheat or barley.

It's distilled entirely in column stills, which may comprise either two or three columns.

That encompasses pretty much all the grain whiskey currently made in Ireland. Except for one component of Jameson Black Barrel that gets a first pass through a pot followed by another through two columns. Jameson describes this in marketing as a small batch grain whiskey. If they ever bottle it on its own, they won't be able to label it Irish Grain Whiskey.

Irish Blended Whiskey

This is a blend of two or more of the preceding three types of whiskey. No proportions are mandated.

The most interesting implication of this definition is that it relegates Writers Tears and certain Irishman bottlings to the blended category. The typical blend is deliberately lightened with grain whiskey but these combine pot still and malt whiskey only. That implies more of a flavour punch so it feels slightly unfair to class them as blends.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Curse of Accessibilty

Is Irish whiskey taken seriously? Not according to Mark Reynier, speaking to The Spirits Business recently. He's the guy converting a former brewery in Waterford city to a whiskey distillery.
“I don't think people take Irish whiskey seriously, because there isn't anything with which to take it seriously. It's easy doing accessible stuff, but there isn't a great deal of mind-fuckery going on; it's all just pretty simplistic stuff." 
“Our aim is the put some meat on the bones and actually produce some serious whiskey.” 
“It gives me the opportunity to challenge Pernod Ricard in Ireland and create a significant Irish whiskey brand with a whole lot of extra credibility that sometimes is missing from big companies.”
There's plenty there I disagree with and I'm inclined - with a nod to Samuel Johnson - to slap a bottle of Redbreast 21yo on the table and declare: "I refute it thus".

I'll agree with him about one thing though: Irish whiskey has a perception problem. And not just among our foreign comrades. Here's Bono, doing a bit of  soul-searching over U2's last album:
"...the album should have had more of the energy of the musicians and those who inspired it... a bit more anarchy, a bit more punk. We didn't want a pastiche of the era so we put all those 70s and early eighties influence in the juicer and a blend emerged... more like an Irish whiskey than a single malt."
Like many whiskey drinkers in Ireland and elsewhere, Bono is using single malt as a synonym for both scotch and quality whiskey, and as an antonym for Irish whiskey. I'm not singling out Bono; this usage is common in Ireland. The news has yet to trickle out that we produce our own quality single malts, along with single pot stills that can stand toe-to-toe with anything from Scotland.

I think this lack of regard stems from the Irish whiskey industry's own marketing script. It's that word that damns with faint praise: accessible. Mark Reynier used it pejoratively above but we routinely introduce our own whiskey as "easy-drinking, approachable, accessible".

It sounds like a positive attribute but it's really code for "not peated like that dreadful scotch". There are smooth, sweet, unpeated Scottish whiskies but if you are not into sucking on chimneys you are playing Russian roulette when you order blindly from a scotch menu.

Even Connemara, "Ireland's peaty whiskey", is only lightly so, and is a sweet, gently smoky malt with wide appeal.

The "accessibility" of Irish whiskey is a historical accident. Nothing mandates the general exclusion of peat from Irish whiskey. Triple-distillation sometimes gets equal billing for upping the smooth-factor but that's not a requirement either. Cooley's range has always been double-distilled, for example.

The accessibility tag served a purpose, which was to shift huge quantities of blended whiskeys. Now that we are trying to showcase the best of non-blended Irish spirits, it's a millstone.

The industry went through this before when Irish whiskey became a kitchen ingredient reserved for making Irish coffee. What seemed like a great wheeze for flogging bottles hobbled subsequent efforts to expand the market.

The time has come to stop defining Irish whiskey by what it isn't. It can stand on its own merits.

"Well, Mr Media Person, it's because Irish whiskey is smoother, sweeter, more approachable..."
Whoa, hold your horses, there! This is what's creating the perception that Irish whiskey is scotch without the intensity and excitement. Let's try that one more time...

"It's because we have been making whiskey in this country longer than anyone else so we know what we are doing. Irish whiskey starts with our grain and water and is only bottled after years spent quietly maturing in oak casks. It's a process that has been carefully refined over many centuries. 
"Irish whiskey is rich with aromas and flavours - spices and herbs, leather and tobacco, flowers and fruits. It can smell of the forest, or the sea, or the Christmas pudding of your childhood. You could spend a lifetime exploring Irish whiskey and never tire of its infinite variety. 
"Becoming acquainted with Irish whiskey is an exciting journey that the rest of the world is eager to discover. And we can't wait to share it with them."

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Redbreast Mano a Lámh

Midleton Distillery is drawing attention to sherry cask maturation with its latest release, Redbreast Mano a Lámh. There are two 'hand's in that name, one Spanish, one Irish, linked across Europe by the journey those casks take.

The oak grows in the forests of Galicia and Cantabria in the north of Spain and is crafted into casks at the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in the south. They then spend two years at one of several bodegas, filled with oloroso sherry, before being emptied and dispatched promptly to Midleton for immediate refilling with spirit.

Sherry butts are big and expensive, and Midleton imports only 4,000 to 5,000 of them each year (compared with 125,000 bourbon casks). But the whiskey matured in them has a huge influence on many of the brands that Midleton produces, including Jameson. Besides contributing a rich hue to the spirit, sherry casks add notes of dried fruits, cinnamon, nutmeg and berries.

I can't think of a prior all sherry-matured whiskey from the new Midleton distillery and, having sampled such spirit straight from the cask on several occasions, I can understand why. The sherry is overwhelming. Many of my whiskey-drinking colleagues love those big sherry flavours, however, and have been agitating for just such a release.

Their wish has come true with this new Redbreast. There is a limited quantity - just 2,000 bottles - and it's only available to members of the company's Stillhouse website (membership is free). I'm as curious as anyone to try it so I've already bunged in an order. At €65 a pop, I think this will sell out in no time. It's nice to have something unusual on the shelf, a talking point.

Billy Leighton, the Master Blender, says in the press release:
It was an exciting challenge as a Master Blender to work on this project; having to ensure that the right balance was achieved and the sherry contribution did not over power in the final taste.
I'd love to know what means were employed to restrain that sherry. I remember on the Mitchell & Son website, way back, they noted that their original Green Spot whiskey was a vatting of oloroso and other dark sherries with lighter finos. Wine importers like Mitchell's and Gilbey's (the original owners of the Redbreast brand) were bringing in all types of sherry by the cask and refilling with fresh spirit from the Jameson distillery.

Midleton doesn't have a range of sherry types to play with, just the oloroso, and they are all first-fill casks for this release so there are no punches pulled there either. The new Redbreast lacks an age statement so perhaps the incorporation of younger whiskey lightens the effect.

Here are Billy Leighton's tasting notes:
Very deep dried fruits, raisins and sultanas with the more earthy tones of fig, dates and prunes. The sweetness is from the fruit and balances perfectly with pot still spices such as dill and black pepper, and the contribution of the toasted Spanish oak. 
Silky smooth and deceptively sweet, full of rich, ripe, dark fruit with the leisurely emergence of the signature spices. 
The rich fruit slowly gives way to the perfection of the Spanish oak.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Liberties 11 Year Old Single Malt

Happy birthday, Dublin Airport! 75 years seeing us off the island and back again.

Many airports are endured rather than enjoyed but I always hope for a good hour to squander airside at Dublin. It's a chance to survey the full landscape of Irish whiskey and chat with the sales staff, enthusiasts themselves and keen to offer information and opinions. (They have formed their own whiskey club, based at the airport: the Aviators Whiskey Society).

There is the prospect of uncovering a previously unknown bottle since new releases sometimes surface at The Irish Whiskey Collection weeks before they appear elsewhere. And then there are the whiskeys that are entirely exclusive to the shop (which has a branch in Cork airport too).

The latest exclusive is The Liberties Single Malt, one of several collaborations to date with the Teeling Whiskey Company. It's named for the area of Dublin that Teeling and others are rapidly transforming into a new distilling quarter.

The whiskey is aged for over 11 years in ex-bourbon casks and bottled in a limited edition of 1,000 at 46%, with no chill-filtration.

It comes in an attractive presentation box that would make for a nice gift for an overseas client or friend. Or you could delight your future self by buying it on the way out and picking it up on the way back. (That Shop & Collect service is dangerously seductive when you are kicking around the departure gates.)

At €99 it could be worth a punt. I haven't tried it, but I was a fan of an earlier TWC/IWC hookup, The Gathering.

Official tasting notes:
Fruits of the forest, raspberry, roses, tea tree 
Honey, blood oranges, peach, all spice 
Wood, burnt toast, a lingering spice

Friday, 19 December 2014

Makers & Brothers Select Reserve Glass

If you're anything like me, you'll be thinking about getting around to buying Christmas presents one of these days. If the intended recipients of those presents are anything like me, you won't need to stray much further than the Makers & Brothers pop-up shop on Dame Lane in Dublin.

I visited the shop recently and several items caught my eye that would delight the spirits drinker.

Select Reserve Whiskey Tumbler

This was the initial draw that lured me to the shop. I met Midleton's Master Blender, Billy Leighton, back in October and he told me some of the qualities in his ideal whiskey glass. He collaborated with Makers & Brothers and The Irish Handmade Glass Company to create such a glass so I was very keen to see how it turned out.

Photo: Al Higgins, courtesy of Makers & Brothers

As it happens, stock didn't arrive till a couple of days after my visit so I haven't laid hands on it myself yet. This is how Makers & Brothers describe the concept and design process:
The project began with Master Blender Billy Leighton, Billy introduced Makers & Brothers to the need for a wide base in a glass to allow for swirling and aerating the whiskey and a narrow opening to focus the aroma. The classic glass of this type is tulip shaped with a small stem, delicate and scientific in its use it almost takes the joy out of what should be a magical moment. Makers & Brothers wanted to keep the key functions but create something a little more modern and everyday. 
An everyday whiskey tumbler, sturdy with a form reminiscent of the barrels the whiskey matures in. Truncated to allow for a swirl and a focused aroma but beyond that a simple glass that elevated the drinking experience and was a pleasure to hold with a wide base and a small ridge around its middle. 
To develop the idea further Makers & Brothers called on the expertise of the master craftsmen at The Irish Handmade Glass Company, the men responsible for keeping the tradition of mouth-blown glass alive in Ireland. Like all of the products designed at Makers & Brothers, learning about the makers’ individual techniques is an integral part of the design process. Makers & Brothers worked with The Irish Handmade Glass Company to turn the prototype moulds from local oak, experiment with scale and refine the details with each new iteration. Every adjustment was the result of fascinating conversations and experiments with glass blowers and cutters down in Waterford. 
Each glass is handmade in Co Waterford, on the banks of The Three Sisters River, the home of Irish Crystal. This whiskey tumbler is the result of a strong and respectful partnership between designer, maker and blender.
There is a video of the collaboration.

Price: €40.


I understand that the Select Reserve glasses sell out quickly when they arrive in the shop but two other Irish glass makers are represented too, J. Hill's Standard and Jerpoint.

I also spied an unusually small, slender, glass water jug with a pour fine enough to deliver the tiniest splash needed to open a reluctant whiskey, and a beautifully-glazed ceramic jug that wasn't quite as petite but would look great at an Irish whiskey tasting.

You may or may not find exactly these items on your visit to the shop as they are artisan products hand-made in small quantities. You are guaranteed, however, to find yourself surrounded by the best of contemporary Irish design. The shop disappears for another year on Christmas Eve, so do drop by over the next few days. (Their website remains online all year round, of course.)