The Evolution of Pot Still Irish Whiskey and Other Myths

May 4, 2019

Earlier this week you may have seen this tweet:

Which just might have something to do with a series of blog posts I wrote on the vexed subject of Pot Still Irish, that historic mixed mash bill whiskey that’s been with us since at least the 18th Century. Then again their blog might just be a huge coincidence.

Either way, the Irish Distillers piece sets up the narrative quite nicely:

‘The Irish Whiskey Technical File lists that Irish Pot Still Whiskey must be made from a mash which contains a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.’

The Technical File is the rule book, in place since 2014, that sets out a set of processes and standards that have to be met to qualify for Geographical Indication (G.I.) protection.

Our issue is that there has never historically been a Pot Still Irish whiskey that is compliant with the current definition.

The essential characteristic of Pot Still Irish whiskey has always been its mix of barley, malt and other grains. I have distillery mash bills covering the period 1823 to 1955 and instead of ‘other grains’ making up 5% of the total (as is currently allowed), the range is actually from 20% to 70%. So how did we end up defining a category in terms of a 5% limit that never existed?

Boil away all the blather and the Irish Distillers/Pernod Ricard blog attributed to Barry Crockett (or Media Team) offers two variants on where the ‘5% rule’ came from.

First up is the ‘it’s too hard to define’ explanation: ‘a broad catch-all definition would weaken the claim to have some particularly unique characteristic.’ Clearly no one at Pernod has ever heard of Bourbon which mandates 51% corn, allowing for 49% of whatever you’re having yourself.

I don’t think they even believe that explanation, because they they then go on to say the G.I. has to define ‘uniqueness’, forgetting entirely that the same Technical File protects Single Malt Irish Whiskey which is of course, totally not unique.

Which brings us to explanation No.2 and this is where things get a lot more interesting.

First, let me give this a little background. In 1953 we know that every every last distillery in the country (under the umbrella of The Irish Pot Still Distillers Association, so that’s Jameson, Powers, Lockes, Tullamore and Cork Distillers) put their names to a letter stating that barley typically accounted for 80% of a mash, with the other grains making up the remaining 20%.

This letter was posted from the Jameson Bow Street Distillery

So there’s a clear line in the sand – we know for a fact that in 1953 some 20% other grains were used in a typical Pot Still Irish whiskey.

The Pernod blog states:

‘There was no intention to consider oats or other cereal types from the mid to late 1960s onwards where Irish Pot Still whiskey was concerned.’ 

So, between 1953 and the mid to late 60s, it was all over for oats. So what else happened in the period? Well in 1966, the three surviving Irish distilleries (Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillers) formed Irish Distillers and set about centralising all production at a new facility in Midleton. And the Pernod blogs states:

‘No oats whatsoever were used in the final years of the older distillery nor in the new Midleton Distillery from 1975.’

So there you have it, by their own admission at Midleton they don’t use mixed grains.

A Jameson label laying out their mixed grains. The Ghost of Spirits Past

The liquid that became Pot Still Irish whiskey is purely a creation of Irish Distillers (later taken over by Pernod); it is a child of a monopoly. The only people ever to make it were Irish Distillers and now an entire category has been defined in terms of what they produce.

The message in this tweet is clear, it’s a statement of company policy. Pernod’s Pot Still Irish is a mix of barley and malt.

Now if the defining character of Pot Still Irish whiskey is its mixed mash bill, and what Irish Distillers have produced since the mid-to -late 60s lacks those required ‘other cereals’, you could argue it is no longer a Pot Still Irish whiskey – it has evolved into something else.

The Pernod blog ends with this interesting insight on the 5% rule:

‘This addition rate would not jeopardise the essential characteristic and thus the term Irish Pot Still Whiskey could validly claim its unique provenance.’

Forget the provenance bit, as percentages have nothing to do with provenance. Instead closely look at these six words: ‘would not jeopardise the essential characteristic’. In other words, while historically the ‘essential characteristic’ of Pot Still Irish whiskey was its mixed mash bill, this is an admission that the category has now been redefined. Since 2014, the ‘essential characteristic’ is how they make it in Midleton.