How would you define ‘Irish whiskey’?

18 September, 2015

It’s not as stupid a question as it might first seem. It’s a spirit made from grain, yeast and water in the country of Ireland, right?

Well perhaps, but not necessarily. Would a whiskey made in Ireland with rye as the principle ingredient be an Irish whiskey, or for that matter would a rye whisky made in Scotland be a scotch whisky?

We live in exciting times when it comes to the production of spirits. Across the globe, from the southern extremes of New Zealand to the northern wilderness of Sweden, distillers are making and maturing exciting and innovative spirits. But they’re also concocting a recipe for confusion as they move further and further away from the original template of whisky, genever, absinthe or gin.

That raises some very serious questions indeed. After all, if an English gin tastes like a Caribbean coconut cocktail is it still an English gin? Was that sickly toffee-ish drink released a few years back really worthy of the name ‘poteen’, and isn’t ‘premium moonshine’ a contradiction in terms?

Truth is, the world of spirits production is progressing so fast it’s hard to keep up. I used an Irish whiskey example at the start of this column for a reason – Ireland has just introduced an Irish Whiskey Association similar to the one that exists in Scotland.

Almost inevitably there have been bickerings between some of the new and very small craft distillers and some of the bigger companies that are in the driving seat when it comes to definitions.

But the Irish and Scottish associations are necessary – they are metaphorical fortresses reinforcing their walls and bringing up the drawbridge. The rest of us are scrabbling around in the wild frontiers, the spirits world’s version of a Mad Max landscape. And out here bad things happen. There are spirits made with industrial spirit and a ‘teabag’ containing oak chips and flavourings. There are bottles of spirit made from hopped beer and a slither of a bourbon barrel with a label saying “keep for three years and you have your own bourbon”.

These things matter, because while more choice is a good thing, a confused consumer isn’t. Nor is a lack of trust, and trust goes straight out the window if you expect to get a sweet juniper and fruit combo and you end up with a kipper and pepper deli drink instead. It might be an extremely well made kipper and pepper drink, but it’s not a sweet gin. You can call your cat Fido but...

These are early days, but different territories are already reacting to the issue in different ways. Sweden has considered a definition of Swedish whisky right down to what strength it must be, but there is opposition.

Australia, on the other hand, takes a far more laissez- faire approach, and on Tasmania you’ll find distillers producing single malts, ryes and Irish-style whiskeys. All of them fall under the category of ‘Australian whisky’.

As we go forward more and more spirits drinks will test the boundaries of taste and acceptability. In the interests of quality, they need to be monitored. Nobody wants to curb innovation, but we need rules. After all, as the Pub Landlord might put it, where would we be without rules?

Certainly not Ireland.





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Dominic Roskrow

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