GI holds back Irish pot still

23 February, 2023

Irish whiskey producers are looking for a change to regulations in order to allow the style to flourish.

Within the industry it’s well documented that Irish whiskey was once dominant, outselling all other whiskies, including Scotch and bourbon. However, what is less well known is that by the 19th century the majority of whiskey sales were in single pot still. According to the history books, there were 93 working distilleries in Ireland by 1835 and, due to taxes on malted barley, single pot still was the favoured style as it blends both malted and unmalted barleys together.

Even after these tax reforms were repealed, single pot still whiskey reigned supreme until 1832, when the Coffey still was patented and led to the production of cheaper blended whiskeys. Things went from bad to worse for the once-great whiskey style when a combination of famine, civil war, US Prohibition and over-expansion led to the demise and almost extinction of Irish whiskey in general. Today the category is undergoing a revival and reclaiming some of its heritage. However, for single pot still whiskey things aren’t as promising.

In 2014 a Geographical Indication was introduced which stated that single pot still must be made up of malted and unmalted barley with a maximum of 5% of the mash bill containing a different unmalted grain. The introduction of a European Union-recognised GI has unquestionably helped grow the Irish whiskey category over the past decade, but its regulations have failed to satisfy everyone.

Louise McGuane is in the unhappy camp. McGuane founded JJ Corry in 2016, becoming Ireland’s first modern whiskey bonder, and as one of the category’s most progressive members, she wants to see change.

“At the time that the technical file was being drafted there were only a handful of people making whiskey in Ireland and the only company making single pot still would have been Pernod Ricard,” says McGuane. “Naturally, therefore, they said that pot still Irish whiskey needs to be made the way they do it and these regulations were put into the technical file.

“However, fast forward just a few years and there’s a huge wave of new distilleries in Ireland all making whiskey, none of which got to voice their opinions on the technical file.”

To be specific, in 2013 there were just four active distilleries in Ireland and when the technical file was passed the following year, that number had doubled. But by October 2021 there were 36 with plenty more in the pipeline.

McGuane adds: “In 1831 there were reports written by Customs & Excise, who had total control over whiskey from a tax perspective, which cite that single pot still whiskey was at least a third oats. In fact, there’s a whole load of historic mash bills which have been well documented that use more than 5% of other grains. The irony is that we can’t make traditional-style pot still whiskey because the GI, which was implemented to protect tradition, is preventing us from doing it.”

This is one of the main points that the Irish Whiskey Association brought forward when it presented its proposal for an updated technical file in late 2021. The proposals were made to the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine, as well as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (the same departments for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), plus the authorities responsible for the category’s GI.

Chair of the IWA’s technical committee and Powerscourt Distillery’s master distiller and blender, Noel Sweeney, said at the time: “Irish whiskey’s status as a protected geographic indication has played a key role in driving the global revival of Irish whiskey sales over recent years.

“Our GI is built on a strong set of rules, consistent with Irish whiskey’s heritage and traditions. These proposed changes seek to provide greater clarity, efficiency and flexibility to Irish whiskey production processes in line with those heritage and traditions, while also promoting a more sustainable industry.”

Petition for change

The proposed changes were expected to have been passed and implemented by the end of 2022, according to IWA head William Lavelle, but as of yet nothing has changed.

McGuane adds: “The difficulty is that the Irish Whiskey Association and other bodies have petitioned against the department to change the legislation but it pushed back. It believes that pot still is recognised in the market and that any change to the technical file would mean that consumers wouldn’t recognise the taste of it anymore, which is total bullshit. Single pot still is not particularly well known and there’s still only a few brands under the Pernod Ricard portfolio which are well known.

“We all thought this new legislation was going to go through. Everyone was excited and gearing up for it, and then the department pushed back. But the majority of the industry wants it to change because the smaller players have to be able to compete.”

McGuane also identified that the category is coming under threat overseas, beyond the regulations of European law, where producers are tapping into single pot still’s potential.

She adds: “There’s now people making American Irish pot still whiskey, which is really hard to legislate for. In America brands have realised how big the category could be and they’re now beginning to make whiskies in ways that we aren’t allowed in Europe, and it’s getting really confusing for consumers.

“The department needs to ratify the change so that everyone can make traditional and more interesting single pot still whiskey, and then we have to tackle the bastardisation of it. Particularly in America where they’re winning the battle over smaller producers in Ireland because they’re stifled in what they can do.”

Despite the disappointment and frustration felt by many brands, this hasn’t stopped them making whiskey how it used to be made.

McGuane adds: “There are lots of producers making non-compliant single pot still whiskey right now. They can only call it ‘Irish whiskey’, but they’re still doing it. I bet Pernod is even making it because everyone can see the potential for it.

“I have tons of it in my warehouse from three different producers which I’ll either hold on to until the rules change, or I’ll have to bottle as just ‘Irish whiskey’.”

Just a couple of years ago there was a lot of noise coming from the Irish whiskey category about the excitement for single pot still expressions, but for now these emotions are muffled.

To clarify, nobody has a bad word to say about the existing single pot still brands – in-fact, Redbreast has been named the Most Admired Irish Whiskey Brand in Drinks International’s World’s Most Admired Whiskies in every edition so far.

But the big concern is the potential damage being done outside Europe where consumers are being exposed to disingenuous single pot still Irish whiskey while distillers in Ireland are being limited, watching its reputation get murky from afar.

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