Just In 👉 Look Out America, PM Spirits And Prestige Ledroit...

News & New Releases

How does Irish Whiskey intend to compete with Scotch? Hint: Their New Regulations

What you need to know:

  • Whisky regulations are important - they directly govern the processes used to produce whisky, and they go as far as to define what is a single malt and the necessary steps in production. 
  • The Scotch whisky rules are notorious for being very conservative and strict. For instance, not all types of casks can be used for Scotch whisky maturation. 
  • In contrast, the Irish have always been quite progressive. 
  • In October this year, the Irish Whiskey Association officially proposed several changes to the Irish whiskey rules. 
  • The main goal of these proposals: to see more innovation and a wider variety styles within the Irish whiskey category. 

 

 

Let’s talk about whisky regulations. Not exactly the sexiest topic, I know- but regulations would show us how whisky industries in different countries would evolve in the future.

The rules governing the labelling of whisky are very intimately linked to what we drink in our glasses, and the processes that distillers are permitted to use in producing the golden spirit. These rules go as far as to define what is a whisk(e)y, what is a single malt, what is a bourbon and the necessary steps in production in various whisky-producing countries such as Scotland, Ireland, Japan and the United States. 

 

The Scots don’t joke around

Scotland holds a notoriously tight rein on its rules governing the production of Scotch whisky. Until 2019, rules enforced by the Scotch Whisky Association only permitted Scotch whisky to be matured in traditional cask styles that have been used in the industry- such as bourbon, sherry, rum, wine and beer.

 

 

These Scotch rules have been relaxed slightly in June 2019, allowing for non-traditional cask types to be used. Now, Scotch producers can use casks that previously held agave spirits (such as tequila or mezcal), shochu, baijiu or even fruit spirits such as calvados (though there appears to have been a release of a calvados-cask Arran single malt before 2019). However, there still are several caveats: (1) Only ex-beer, ex-wine or ex-spirit casks can be used. Cider casks cannot be used because cider is not a beer, wine or spirit. (2) Scotch producers cannot use casks that previously held drinks made from stone fruits (such as peaches, cherries or apricots), or drinks that have been flavoured or sweetened after fermentation/distillation.  

What’s the purpose of these rules? According to the Scotch Whisky Association, these rules are intended to protect quality and reputation of Scotch whisky, and maintain a degree of consistency within Scotch whisky’s heritage and tradition.

 

The Irish are quite progressive 

In contrast, Ireland’s whiskey-making experience has been much more flexible. Perhaps this is why Irish whiskey is now the fastest-growing spirit category in the world. Two-and-a-half (2.5) times more Irish whiskey is being sold today as compared to 2010. 

While Scotch rules require aging in oak casks, the Irish whiskey rules simply call for any wooden casks- not just oak. This means that Irish distillers can use wood types like chestnut, cedar or redwood.

 

Oak, chestnut, cedar and redwood.

 

The cask style used by Irish distillers are also practically unlimited compared to Scotch. Scotch rules permit the use of ex-beer, ex-wine or ex-spirit casks, and nothing else. This means that ex-cider casks cannot be used to mature Scotch. 

On the other hand, yet the Irish rules would agree with ex-cider casks. Ex-any alcoholic drink casks would be permitted for Irish whiskey maturation.

 

Updates to Irish rules to improve clarity and innovation 

 

The Irish Whiskey Association represents the whiskey industry across the country, and is based in Dublin.

 

Irish whiskey rules are about to receive a further update in the coming months. 

In October this year, the Irish Whiskey Association or IWA (the trade lobby representing Irish whiskey producers) has proposed a number of amendments to Irish whiskey rules that deal with:

  • The production of pot still Irish Whiskey
  • The production of grain Irish Whiskey
  • Clearer age-statement requirements

 

Pot still Irish whiskey

 

 Traditional pot still outside the Old Midleton Distillery (Image Source: Distiller)

 

“Pot still” whiskey is the most iconic style of whiskey coming out of Ireland. Unlike malt whisky which consists of 100% malted barley, “pot still” whiskey is made from a mixture of around 60% unmalted barley and 30% malted barley. This composition gives Irish whiskey a distinctive spicy flavour and and improved creamy texture. Read more about “pot still” whiskey and its history with Ireland’s distillers here. 

 

Malted barley and unmalted barley.

 

Under the present Irish whiskey rules, Irish pot still whiskey must:

  • contain at least 30% unmalted barley (although in practice much more is usually used)
  • contain at least 30% malted barley
  • contain no more than 5% other cereals such as oats or rye 
  • be distilled in pot stills 

The IWA proposes amending the third requirement to allow for up to 30% of other cereals:

  • contain at least 30% unmalted barley (No change)
  • contain at least 30% malted barley (No change)
  • contain no more than 30% other cereals such as oats or rye 
  • be distilled in pot stills

 

Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery in Dublin which operated since the 1900s was one of the powerhouses of the Irish whiskey industry (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 

The rationale? According to the IWA, this composition better reflects Irish pot still whiskey tradition. Many Irish distillers historically used much more than 5% of other cereals in making whiskey. But more importantly, the IWA believes that this flexibility would “greatly enhance” the subcategory of Irish pot still whiskey by adding more variety to the taste profiles anything labelled Irish pot still whiskey.

 

Grain Irish whiskey

 

Column stills have to be used for grain whiskey (Image Source: Market Watch)

 

Grain whiskey contains cereals such as maize or wheat. It is another style that became popular in Ireland in the 1970s, when Irish distillers wanted to create a lighter style of whiskey more acceptable to the general public. Read more about grain whiskey and its history with Ireland’s distillers here.

 

 

Under the present Irish whiskey rules, Irish grain whiskey must:

  • contain cereals such as maize, wheat or unmalted barley
  • contain no more than 30% malted barley
  • be distilled in column stills

The IWA proposes entirely removing the second requirement of no more than 30% malted barley:

  • contain cereals such as maize, wheat or unmalted barley
  • any amount of malted barley
  • be distilled in column stills

 

The kilning process: green malt at Highland Park Distillery being dried over a heated kiln. (Image Source: Whiskyspeller)

 

The rationale here appears more pragmatic, mostly about keeping production costs down. Irish distilleries are currently looking for ways to minimise the energy needed for the grain drying and kilning process (read more about this process here). 

Apparently, less energy is required to dry the grain if they mostly consisted of malted barley. Therefore, it is proposed that the 30% limit on the amount of malted barley should be lifted.

 

Stronger labelling rules

The third proposal is to strengthen labelling rules of Irish whiskey in relation to age statements.

Founded by UFC professional fighter Conor McGregor, the Proper No. Twelve brand of Irish whiskey has been criticised by some to mislead consumers in thinking that the whiskey had been aged for 12 years, when the whiskey is younger.

 

“Twelve” in Proper No. Twelve is actually intended to refer to District 12 of Dublin, where McGregor grew up. (Image source: The Spirits Business)

 

The Redbreast 12 is one of the most iconic traditional Irish whiskey. This particular expression has indeed been aged for 12 years (Image Source: The Umbrella Project)

 

IWA proposes to introduce a rule prohibiting Irish whiskey labels from including any numbers that could confuse consumers into thinking that they refer to the whiskey’s age, or year in which it was distilled. IWA explains that the move would prevent ‘unfair competition against other products sold with genuine age statements’. 

If this new rule is accepted by regulators, this could mean that Proper No. Twelve would have to be re-branded to remove “Twelve”. Connor McGregor to have something to say about this proposal. (Note: But thankfully for him, he already sold the brand to a spirits company early this year for a very tidy profit of US$600 million.)

When asked about the fate of the Proper No. Twelve brand, the IWA declined to respond on the basis that they are unable to comment on specific cases.

One should consider that there is an identical restriction in the Scotch whisky rules:-

 

(Source: UK Legislation- Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009)

 

Yet, one could also say that the timing of this proposal does seem a little reactive.

 

Our take

Apart from the above 3 proposals, it is unclear what other amendments have been proposed by the IWA. However, Irish whiskey producers such as Teeling Whiskey, Dingle Distillery and Clonakilty Distillery have expressed strong support for these proposals- especially for the relaxation of rules on ingredients going into Irish pot still or grain whiskey.  

Given the role and position of the IWA, we fully expect almost all of its proposals to be accepted as amendments to the law. 

These proposals once again demonstrate the very progressive attitudes that the Irish whiskey industry has when compared to the Scotch industry. Scots prioritise preserving the reputation, quality and signature flavour profile of Scotch whisky, and wouldn’t approve ingredients that deviate too far from tradition. On the other hand, the Irish are doubling down on more flexibility in terms of taste, ingredient experimentation and cask innovation.

Scotch continues to occupy a larger share of the whisky-drinking market than Irish whiskey. But if the Irish whiskey industry continues to grow and innovate, the next decade of Irish whiskey could be its most vibrant one yet. Since the 70's the Irish have been ceaselessly searching for a flavour profile that would capture a wider variety of palates than Scotch. Perhaps the following decade would finally belong to the Irish.

 

If you enjoyed this article on how Irish whiskey is made, you’ll probably like these too:

 

@charsiucharlie