I admit it. ‘Grand Cru’ is a pretty shit name for anything Irish. But it gets the idea of a ‘superior grade’ across in a couple of words, so it will do for now.

Why you may ask do we need a superior grade of Irish whiskey? A fair question, so let me explain.

The Irish Whiskey Technical File was largely a crystallisation of what the industry looked like in 2014. So not surprisingly it is built to fit the needs and the business model of the distilleries and the brands operating at the time. Since then the industry has stratified somewhat, we have more multinational players than ever, but now also a growing body of indigenous producers. And that’s where the friction is being felt, where the two worlds rub uncomfortably off each other. Premier League rules don’t work when it’s five a side.

Just look at how things have changed in just ten years.

Irish Whiskey 2010 - 2020

In the short term, there is no getting around the current Technical File, it’s there to preserve the status quo: to ensure the level playing pitch is more level for some than others. Laws aren’t about right or wrong, they are about power, who has it and what they want to control. In this case, the Technical File is used to shape the industry into one based on the needs of the large producers who wrote the rules. This is less consumer-facing legislation and more industrial protectionism.

For example: two bottles on a shelf. One €25 one €65, both Irish Whiskey. What (besides the price) is the difference? Well, one is more expensive because… see… when you are explaining you are losing. With their economies of scale, this model works for the multi-nationals (which is why we are where we are) but doesn’t work for the small indigenous player.

So how can we skew the pitch to favour the consumer and the small producer? Well, that’s where a Gold Standard might come in. We’d need a simple identifier that says one product is ‘superior’ and therefore worth that extra €40. Remember any solutions we come up with have to sit comfortably on top of the 2014 file, and the Irish Whiskey Act 1980. In other words, minimum standards are set in law, but excellence is a choice.

So what would an Irish Whiskey Grand Cru look like? Let’s break it down.

What follows are questions, not statements. The idea here isn’t to replace one enforced rule book, with another. It’s about starting a debate.

  • Irish Grains? There’s been a lot of talk recently about the use (or not) of Irish grain in the manufacture of Irish whiskey. So let’s start there and say that to qualify, you have to use Irish grain.

Most small producers already use Irish grain, while too many large players just pay lip service on the guided tour. Using Irish grain makes sense for any Gold Standard and should give small producers an advantage over those who use cheaper imported grain. The Irish-grown barley we’ve used tastes quite different from that I have tasted in Scotland, and Waterford Distillery have done a huge amount to prove the importance of terroir in whiskey.

On a more holistic note, when we started Blackwater Distillery it was virtually impossible to get Irish-grown rye, so we imported it. Now it’s grown for us and thanks to demand Irish rye is a thing, and back to terroir, it’s quite different from the imported stuff.

  • Irish malted? Is it enough to have Irish grain, should any malting happen on the island?

Until recently the malting industry in Ireland reflected the distilling industry it supplied, so we had just a couple of very large (and very good) maltsters. But no one handled loads of less than 60 tonnes, and no one dried with peat. Now that landscape is changing, with at least three smaller malsters on the island, and a couple of distilleries experimenting with floor malting. Again if we want to demonstrate added value to the end consumer, this is an obvious way of doing that.

  • Distilled in-house? To qualify do you need to have your distillery, would third-party brands be excluded?

There has to be an upside to spending shit tonnes of money on building a distillery, so do we give a break to those who put their wallets on the line? Or does it matter who owns the brand? Is all the other stuff more important?

  • Maximum distillation ABV?

This is a curious one. When making Irish whiskey, currently you can push your distillate as high as 94.5% (pure ethanol comes at around 96%), in other words, it doesn’t taste of much (despite what the Technical File says), it’s just a way of producing industrial quantities of whiskey, where efficiencies is more important than taste. But since small producers are all about taste, and we don’t have or use continuous stills, is there an argument for a maximum of distillate in the mid-80% abv?

  • Site of maturation? The Technical File states that Irish whiskey has to be matured on the island of Ireland, but do ask for something more local with whiskey being matured on-site by the distillery in question.

Currently, most maturation happens in just a handful of warehouses across the country. This is unfortunate, but partly it’s due to the difficulty of setting up maturation warehouses in Ireland.

Personally, this is something we might aspire to, but until we get more insurers and bonders into the Irish market, on-site maturation will be too impractical for most small operators.

  • Bottled in Ireland?

I know many in Scotland who wished Single Malts were only bottled in Scotland. Firstly it would give the Scots total control over the end product (which is the consumer experience) and secondly, it would create jobs; together they would increase perceived value. Yes, it would add to costs, but as this category is both small and margin-rich, many feel the upsides outweigh the risks.

  • Chill-filtration?

Most ‘craft’ producers don’t chill filter, mostly because they don’t have the technology. To get away with potential ‘haze floc’ at low temperatures that can mean bottling at 46% or above, which adds costs. Usually filtering to one micron will remove most of the problem and the purchaser of these products would be a more educated consumer, so this may not even be an issue. Which brings us to…

  • Higher in bottle strength?

As these whiskies are never going to be entry-level brands, is there an argument for a higher bottling strength? The legal minimum for whiskey is 40% abv, so what about a Grand Cru minimum of 43% or 46%? This would also help with the issue of chill-filtration.

  • E150a (Caramel)?

If there’s one thing to generate heat in any debate it’s usually this; the addition of colouring. There are lots of fancy schmancy words in the Technical File to justify this practice, but the truth is simple. In the American market (and now by extension Asia and Europe) darker liquid is largely seen as better. So Irish whiskies are getting darker, so does a Grand Cru exclude E150a?

  • Longer Maturation?

Ireland used to have a minimum maturation period of five years, do we go back to that, or do we just move away from age statements entirely?

In Summary:

This is just a first pass to generate a discussion about a category that would sit on top of the current Technical File’s requirements, but add to greater transparency and ‘Irishness’ (whatever that is).

A ‘Gold Standard’ or ‘Grand Cru’ would also be inclusive, so if the larger players wanted to engage then they too should be allowed to use the term.

For me the following definition would work, it is simple to explain and understand. To qualify for Grand Cru approval, the Irish whiskey would have to be:

Made with Irish grown and malted grains, distilled in copper pots to a maximum of 85% abv. The whiskey is distilled, matured and bottled in Ireland, it is not chill-filtered nor does it contain added colour.

But there any many other possible definitions and indeed elements.

What do you think?