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.