Hooray, I hear chorusing from the small-batch distillers and independent bottlers. The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) has announced the Technical Committee has submitted a new ‘Technical File’ that addresses some issues regarding the production of Irish whiskey, which will come into force from October. The news is timely and welcome, but does this support the core Irish whiskey distiller and fully represent those who crave the governance and headship they rightly deserve? And does the File constrain instead of boosting innovation amongst today’s distillers?
So what exactly is the ‘Technical File?’
As per Irish Revenue and customs, the Technical File “demonstrates the geographical link with the country of origin and includes details of the principal physical, chemical, organoleptic and specific characteristics of Irish whiskey.” Essentially it is a list of restrictions and rules regarding whiskey’s production, origin and advertising. It is clearly an obvious and necessary requirement, but it divides opinion rather than unites it. Put simply, for example, it prevents distillers from making a mash from potatoes in England, ageing it for two years and calling it 12-year-old Irish single malt.
Some may argue that the Irish Spirits Association, which was made up of Bushmills, Tullamore DEW, Cooley and Irish Distillers, who ultimately backed and agreed on the legislation for the Irish Technical File back in 2014, lacked the foresight of the potential of Pot Still Irish whiskey. Given that those were the main operational distilleries at the time, it did not adequately reflect the humble hobbyist who eventually grew into the likes of a Brendan Carty or a Michael O’Boyle.
What are the arguments?
One of the main disputes was regarding the categorisation of pot still whiskey and the limitation of 5% other grains in addition to the concoction of 30% malted barley and 30% unmalted barley. The 5% of other cereals recognised that some distillers might wish to add a small number of different cereals for innovation at some point in the future. This ultimately begs the question of how 5% can adequately reflect innovation and promote individuality when Irish whiskey is experiencing its most extensive revival, a time when we should be promoting inventiveness and creativity.
A simple look through history shows a different picture to that portrayed in the File. Back in the 1800s, oats were Ireland’s most widely grown crop and given that there was a malt tax in 1785, availability and cost meant that oats would be the predominant ingredient in a mash. This predicated that Irish mash bills over the course of the next two centuries would not be cereal heavy, but certainly not within the red-taped 5% limitation. Fionnán O’Connor, Ireland’s resident pot-still activist and all-around good guy, has spent numerous hours traipsing through the history books and ascertaining the reality that much more than 5% grains were used. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed, and the definition of Pot Still Irish whiskey will now be expanded to allow up to 30 per cent of other cereals, namely, oats, wheat or rye be permitted.
Additionally, the 30 per cent maximum malted barley requirement from the grain Irish whiskey definition also caused mild consternation. Thankfully removed, the advancement of much more history aligned whiskies has now been able to commence. In fact, Irish whiskey fans pulses were raised when they caught a glimpse of Two Stacks founders, Shane McCarthy and Liam Brogan, and Fionnán O’Connor collaborating with Boann distillery to produce Ireland’s first-ever 100% rye whiskey recently. These issues cause concern because history reflects Irish whiskey as something utterly different from the Technical File. These changes allow distillers to align their mash bills to those seen a century ago, during the revered time when Irish whiskey was the dominant liquid in the world.
So what happens next?
We must be clear that the reform mustn’t stop here; because this change represents only a small victory, addressing only one of the issues in the industry. The previous iteration of the technical File came at a time when there were only four active distilleries on the island of Ireland. Times have changed, and the industry has grown, with the Technical File now representing the concerns relevant in an era that has passed. To be brought up to date, there is much more still to address. Transparency (as I talked about earlier) remains a real and serious issue. Why shouldn’t integrity and factuality be paramount in the reform? As I understand it, the IWA is hoping to secure a new set of labelling guidelines for the category, separate from the Technical File; what these will be is as yet unclear, although I imagine it’s regarding the origin of spirit and maturation declared on the labelling. The Irish Whiskey Guild (as mentioned in my interview with Brendan Carty) is also lobbying against other proposals, such as bringing cask ageing in line with Scotch. These groups are massively important to ensure changes are positively brought about.
Is whiskey alone in this matter?
Thankfully, whiskey is experiencing reform, and rightfully so. But what about poitín? Poitín is exploding on to the market, and it’s easy to see why. Killowen, Baoilleach, Micil and Echlinville are all producing the GI granted status spirit due to ease and quick maturation. Killowen has branded 2022 the year of Poitín, but will the Technical File allow for such a feat, and will its popularity and admiration be supported?
One of the main issues is regarding poitín’s maturation. We can only imagine that this number was chosen to compromise maturation due to objections for and against any length of meaningful ageing. Although current poitíns that abide by this represent some seriously good liquid, there really should be reform to allow a more extended maturation, which will help poitín to flourish on the market. Secondly, the perplexing inclusion of whey as a raw ingredient seems preposterous. And thirdly, if you are an intrepid and innovative distiller wanting to mature poitín, then your ability to mention this is constrained by the following in the Technical File; “There shall be no reference to casks, maturation or ageing on labels, presentation, marketing/promotional or packaging material. The mix of raw materials used must be included on the label.” So like Irish whiskey, poitín is now limited in a red-taped legislative palisade.
One of the clearest examples is Killowen’s latest release of ‘Stone Soup.’ As shown below, a clear favourite of Belfast Whiskey Week, Stone Soup has had to have been ‘redacted’ to abide by regulations, hampering poitín fans’ ability to understand and appreciate their native drink.
Which brings us to the question of support: who provides it? The IWA? Whoever it is, there’s an important requirement to support, nurture and allow innovation for distillers, given the restrictions impede Irish whiskey’s and poitín’s revival.
Is restrictive legislation a common thing for the drinks industry?
Another key example of a spirit bounded by legislation is Mezcal. Like poitín, it’s a historic drink originating in the 16th century that has gone through production iterations and correctly gained GI status. However, legislation has been controversial. It makes the cost of certification prohibitive to small artisanal producers, and traditional producers outside the chosen GI states believe that the term “mezcal” should not be owned by the state. Uncertified producers are prohibited from using the term “mezcal” on their products. I get that there has to be regulation and legislation to ensure proper production; however, given the state of withering economies, surely now is the time to expand, or at least talk about and suggest reform to get the very best out of our national exports? With sales expected to grow 49.2% by volume between now and 2025, Mezcal deserves expansive reform to enable this predicted success.
The ultimate aim of the Technical Files was to produce a provenance to Irish whiskey/pot still/poitín to ensure its status remains preserved. However, the industry has now outgrown the initial iteration of this File, meaning it can now seem to have had the opposite effect, confining the industry’s ability to expand. While I genuinely believe there is an unquestionable need for the Technical File, I think further reform is needed. This update proves that this has begun to happen, although at a glacial pace. We all can play our part too: write blogs, tweet/message/mention distillers/distilleries and talk about change. Irish whiskey sales have grown by 9.1% in the past decade and is predicted to overtake Scotch by 2030, an impressive feat. By implementing change now, we can ensure that Irish whiskey not only retakes its seat at the top of the whiskey table but can remain there for decades to come.