Have you ever watched a magician do a trick? It’s all about slight of hand. You are looking at the wand, or the hat, or the woman in fishnets; your attention is being drawn to one thing, to distract you from something else.
As Covid has us re-evaluating everything from how we work, to how we play; it stuck me as a good time to examine the validity of many of the ‘truths’ about Irish whiskey. How many serve a purpose, and how many are little more than slight of hand? Take the minimum three-year maturation period for whiskeys sold in the EU… Or ‘three years and a day’ if you are a tour guide, as that makes the narrative even more fanciful.
Let me just adjust my top hat and swish my cloak. Now I have your attention…. In my right hand I have the rules to follow when producing new make, so watch carefully as I pour the spirit in a barrel. I mutter a spell and wave my wand. Now look at the clock, the time is upon us; 1,095 days have passed (or 1,094 if it’s a leap year). I pop open the cask and hey Presto! Irish Whiskey!
The trick is so good, even though I have just explained it, you still don’t see the slight of hand do you? That slight of hand has you listening to the ticking clock and looking at the barrel – what you are not seeing is what is inside the barrel. I have you distracted by the act of transformation. But what is being transformed? You don’t care. You just want to see me pull that rabbit from my hat.
By focusing your attention on a magic date, I have equalised the whiskey making process. What I put into the barrel is now irrelevant, all that matters is that after three years I have an Irish whiskey.
But of course all whiskey is not created equal. So why should all whiskey be subject to the exact same three year barrier?
Let’s quickly make two barrels of whiskey at the same fictional distillery.
- The first barrel is filled with new make from our column or continuous still. Let’s say the base grain is wheat (as it’s pretty dull) and it’sdistilled at the maximum strength for Irish whiskey, which is a whopping 94.8% abv. We bring to to 63% abv and stick it in a second fill 200 litre bourbon cask.
- The second barrel is filled with new make from our copper pot stills. It’s a mixed mashbill of the more interesting grains: raw barley, malt, oat and rye. It was double distilled and is at 70% abv. We bring it to a 63% and stick it in a second 200 litre fill bourbon cask.
Two new make spirits that frankly couldn’t be more different. Yet after three years both can be sold as ‘Irish Whiskey’. Why? Because the laws governing Irish whiskey (and Scotch for that matter) aren’t designed to be transparent or to benefit the consumer, rather they are built around the needs of the large producer.
I could even put the first new make in a 700 litre and the second in a 50 litre cask, and as far as the one size fits all legislation goes; it’s all just whiskey.
This isn’t a debate around the differences between malt and ‘silent spirit’ – that boat has long sailed. This is about a arbitrary rule that erases the provenance of the grain, and starts the clock ticking the moment spirit hits the wood. All whiskey is not equal, but the three year rule makes it appear that it is.
But the big boys like the minimum maturation period, why? Firstly it seeds the myth and older is better, secondly it’s a handy barrier to entry. If you want to make whiskey, you will somehow have to fund at least three years worth of production, or in fact more (older is better remember). In other words potential competition is neutered by the massive cost of a producing and storing something that can’t be sold.
The idea of a minimum maturation period of whiskey wasn’t brought down from the mountain by Moses. In fact it only goes back to the First World War. The Immature Spirits Act 1915, was as close as British Prime Minister (and rabid teetotaler) David Lloyd George got to his ideal, which was total prohibition. The initial two year minimum maturation period was designed to kill distilleries (as it robbed them of cash flow) while restrictions on pub opening hours was to ensure folk stayed at home. At the time Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, so the law applied here as much as it did in Scotland. After independence, the Irish Free State increased the compulsory bonding period from three to five years (during which time the industry fell into near extinction) but under pressure from Irish Distillers, in 1969 the minimum maturation period in Ireland was reduced to three years.
Is it time to tackle the myth that a minimum maturation period for Irish whiskey is a guarantee of quality? Yes of course. I don’t see anything in the three year rule that benefits the consumer, all I see is smoke and mirrors. Let me expand on that…
There’s a delicious paragraph in the 1878 book ‘Truths About Whisky’ (issued on behalf of Dublin distillers Messers John Jameson & Sons, William Jameson & Co, John Power & Son and George Roe & Co) where they discuss maturation ‘…after about a year, the whisky may be said to be drinkable, after about two years to be good, and, after about three years, to be as good as anything with which the average consumer is likely to become acquainted.’ The book goes on to add ‘in order to arrive at perfection, it may be laid down… until it’s strength has fallen considerably.’
Because back in 1878 they knew whiskey didn’t come with an on/off switch. A whiskey at any age can be interesting if it is well made, and a well made whiskey will change over the years, dropping in and out of shape as the seasons wax and wane.
Do I ever see us getting rid of the three year rule? One the one hand, no, as it suits the multi-national agenda. But on the other hand, wheels are turning and the consumer deserves a more transparent solution.
There is for example, no minimum maturation period for Bourbon, but any American spirit being sold in the EU as whisky has to be at least three years old. What’s more as I write this I am sipping an American ‘whiskey’ that is less than a year old. How do I know, because it says so on the label. More that that it tells me the exact age of each component, and what percentage of the blend comes from what cask. That kind of transparency is not allowed in Ireland or Scotland, instead only the youngest component of any blend or vatting can be referenced. Scottish bottler Compass Box had some fun with this nonsense recently.
With the UK leaving the EU, our cousins in Scotland will soon be under considerable pressure to abolish their three year minimum maturation period, which will allow younger American whiskey to be sold in that market. The SWA will will of course fight it. But if the Americans prevail, it could be a tipping point, so what would that mean for Irish Whiskey, or Northern Irish Whiskey as a potential second category on the island?
Unfortunately this magic act doesn’t come with a crystal ball. But I do know the story of Irish whiskey should start with the grain, not the wood. Right now that is not the case, the narrative is instead framed by the arbitrary three year rule, and the only one to suffer is the consumer who’s bought the pup.