A New Age for Pot Still?

Friday April 11th, the Kilbeggan Distilling Co. TalkDram Tasting, was the event that really put the conversation of what can and what can’t be considered ‘Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey’ back firmly in my mind. And, in the weeks that followed there’s been several instances where the topic has popped up online, adding further fuel to this seemingly ever-lasting conversation.

For those who may not be familiar with this topic the Irish Whiskey Technical File states that the mash bill for Pot Still Irish Whiskey must contain at least 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley, along with an optional 5% other grains. It is the debate of the limitations of this ‘Pot Still’ mash bill that causes outrage in many enthusiasts and industry veterans alike, many others simply don’t care. The argument being that 5% Other grains, such as Oats, Rye, or wheat is simply not historically accurate, and inhibits innovation in the Pot Still Category.

Many point out that the Technical File was created, from 2012-2014 when Irish Distillers (IDL), the Midleton Distillery, were the only distillery with Pot Still whiskey available in the Irish whiskey category, with all of their Pot Still still whiskeys produced using only malted and unmalted barley. Implying that IDL were protecting themselves by influencing the Dept. of Agriculture to only allow 5% other grains, hence ensuring new Distilleries could not deviate too far from the Pot Still Whiskey they were now championing through the Redbreast, Powers, & Spot Whiskey ranges.

Why is it so important you may ask? Because Pot Still whiskey is uniquely Irish, it is our own style of Whiskey, it is one that we should champion and showcase to the world. It’s our most significant point of difference to other whiskey producing countries. Single Malt may be globally synonymous with quality, and it’s importance to the Irish Whiskey Revival is enormous, but it is Single Pot Still that sets us apart. Pot Still Irish Whiskey gives us the most significant chance to express ourselves and shine.

Before discussing the merits of either side of the argument, I’ll let you know why the Kilbeggan Tasting was so relevant to this topic.

On the night of the event the participants were guided through a tasting of the first 2 releases from the Kilbeggan Distillery since it was re-opened and began distilling in 2007-2008. Being Ireland’s Oldest Distillery has never weighed heavily on the Kilbeggan Distillery, given that it’s not a fictitious statement of provenance like that of a certain distillery apparently established in 1608 although the distillery wasn’t built until 1784 (Bushmills for anyone who is wondering if I’ll call BS or not).

Originally built in 1757, Kilbeggan now plays a small role in the wider Kilbeggan Distilling Co. where the majority of the company’s whiskey is produced at the Cooley Distillery in Co. Louth. Although using re-commissioned stills from the Old Comber Distillery a small amount of experimental distillation occurs frequently at the historic sight in Kilbeggan.

The two whiskeys chosen from the Kilbeggan portfolio for the event were both made from historically relevant Pot Still mash bills, although, fuelling the topic of this discussion, only one of these whiskeys was allowed to state Pot Still on the label.

The first whiskey of the night was the whiskey in question, Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye, it was made from a mash bill containing malted barley, unmalted barley and 30% Rye. The relatively high percentage of Rye used generated considerable interest from the Pot Still enthusiasts of Ireland, although when rumours first emerged of this release there was constant chatter of what they would call/label it as. Given that it had been distilled as a ‘Pot Still’ mash bill before the Technical File was created, I’m sure this decision wasn’t taken lightly by the team in BeamSuntory.

The second whiskey Kilbeggan Single Pot Still, made from a mashbill with malted and unmalted barley along with 2.5% Oats, adhering to the technical file, although admittedly, again, distilled before the creation of the technical file, this was a much less controversial release but was eagerly anticipated by the #whiskeyfabric of Ireland nonetheless.

During the Tweet tasting, Sarah Dowling, Distiller/Blender for the Kilbeggan Distilling Co. and Stephen Magennis, BeamSuntory’s Brand Ambassador for Ireland were on hand to field questions from the participants and wider general public who were tuning in. You can read my Review, Tasting notes, and Ratings for both whiskeys tasted by clicking here. Article continued below…

After the tasting my thoughts were brought to how these whiskeys may have been received and analysed by competitor distilleries, Irish Whiskey Enthusiasts, and newcomers to the Irish Whiskey industry. In order to summarise my thoughts I posed a number of questions to myself:

Would the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye be a welcome addition to the Pot Still Category?

Firstly, what is the general consensus on Pot Still whiskey if we disregard the technical file entirely. The common denominator of the category would then be the use of unmalted barley, and the historical significance of this fact cannot be understated as the practice dates back to the late 1700’s, when Irish Whiskey distilleries were still in their infancy.

It wasn’t until 1759, 2 years after the Kilbeggan Distillery began distilling, that an Act was passed to prohibit the use of anything other than malt (malted barley), grain, potatoes or sugar in distilling. Given Malt’s efficiency in alcohol yield, flavourful nature and general ease of use in the production of alcohol, it quickly became the chosen ingredient for whiskey production throughout Ireland (now other grains may have been used in small proportions at this time, that’s a conversation for another day and probably one that won’t include me, although there is no doubt that Malted Barley would reign supreme as the majority in any mash bill).

However, it was less than 30 years later in 1785 that British Rule gave it’s most significant contribution to the Irish Whiskey industry in the form of The Malt Tax. In an effort to capitalise on the 200+ distilleries now adhering to the 1779 implemented tax on a distilleries potential output (there were 1228 registered distilleries in Ireland in 1779, which fell to 32 by 1821), they began to tax the main ingredient and contributor to the production of alcohol in their process, Malted Barley. As the Irish were prone to do, they adapted and innovated, giving a swift middle-finger straight back to their governors, the majority of Irish Distilleries began using a proportion of unmalted barley as a substitute. Pot Still Irish Whiskey was created. Up until the 1950’s, Pot Still whiskey became the dominant style of Irish Whiskey, using mash bills containing a majority of Malt & unmalted barley, with proportions of Oats, Rye, and wheat commonly used throughout the industry.

The historical significance and the relevance of the origins of Pot Still whiskey to the industry today was explained in a recent podcast on Barry Chandler’s Stories & Sips website. For this particular episode he was joined by Peter Mulryan, Managing Director of The Blackwater Distillery, one of Irish Whiskeys most outspoken & passionate advocates for the Pot Still category, author of several Irish Whiskey Books, and a popular former Broadcaster. The full episode can be listened to here.

Peter explains that in order for us to innovate within the Pot Still category we must first understand the Pot Still whiskeys of the past. Paraphrasing his words, he states that there is nothing innovative about producing historic mash bills, but it certainly stifles innovation within the industry if we can’t produce them. We should be able to re-create these historic ‘Pot Still’ mash bills, learn from them, distil, mature, bottle them and allow the public to explore them. And, we should unquestionably be able to call them Pot Still Whiskeys. Why? Because that’s what they were called.

It makes sense, only after doing this can we truly begin to adapt these recipes, adjust fermentation, yeast strains, cuts, condensing processes, chosen wood types and create something new within Pot Still.

So with that in mind, would the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye be a welcome addition to the Pot Still category? In my opinion, Yes. Exploring these historic mash bills is a treat for the whiskey consumer, and this exercise could become the norm for whiskey enthusiasts if these types of whiskey are continually produced by distilleries throughout the country. In my review of the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye I try and explain the relevance of this whiskey:

”For anyone familiar with Rye whiskeys from the USA or Canada they will not be surprised to see notes of ‘spices, pepper, menthol’, although the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye couldn’t really be compared to Rye Whiskey in all honesty. There’s a delicacy that’s apparent probably derived from the unmalted barley’s natural velvety texture, mixed with the distinct orchard fruits notes from the Malt which ensures that it’s more refined that most Rye whiskeys.”

Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye & Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Review

To take it a step further, below I will compare the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye to recent whiskey releases within the Pot Still category, outside of the Irish Distillers portfolio, such as the Teeling Single Pot Still and Dingle Single Pot Still releases:

Both these whiskeys have been made from malted and unmalted barley alone. The Dingle Distillery have released 3 batches of SPS whiskey since 2017, intending to bring the consumer on a journey as the whiskey matures and begins to develop more character. The initial releases may have been somewhat hindered by their deemed collect-ability, as they sold out in record time and very few were opened for consumption. Although for those who have tasted these whiskeys, myself included, it is clear that they are on a ‘journey’, there are clear pot still characteristics there, well developed palates with influences from the numerous casks used in the batches, but they don’t quite have the balance and maturity you would expect from whiskeys in the same price-point.

The Teeling Whiskey Distillery initially released 3 test batches of their Dublin-distilled Single Pot Still, made up of a mash-bill contain 50% Malt and 50% unmalted barley. Using component whiskeys matured in ex-bourbon, virgin american oak, and ex-wine casks they envisaged developing their commercial release from the best elements of all 3 releases. In truth the commercial release is a perfectly adequate whiskey, it displays distinct distillate character, it’s light and fruity. It’s not what you’d expect if Midleton SPS whiskeys are all you have tasted before, it lacks the depth and complexity that even the lower end IDL Pot Stills have (keeping in mind that it wasn’t made to be compared with these whiskeys, but it’s only natural for a discerning consumer to do so).

So when compared with the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye, both whiskeys can’t deliver the same though-provoking journey of texture and flavour. Both whiskeys are probably more distinctively ‘Pot Still’, as we know it in modern times, than the Kilbeggan, although the Kilbeggan serves to further the conversation and it would have furthered the category if it had of been called a Pot Still Irish Whiskey.

Now to the next question, considering the Kilbeggan Single Pot Still release, given that it does adhere to the technical file:

Does the Kilbeggan Single Pot Still add another string to the bow of Pot Still, does it strengthen the category?

Taking my conclusion from the review on the Kilbeggan Single Pot Still into accoount:

This whiskey has incredible depth, flavour, balanced body, and a unique character that sets it apart from other Single Pot Still Whiskeys. The addition of oats has amplified the vibrant bready, biscuity, gingery notes throughout the palate of the whiskey, paired with the distinctive pot still spice notes, it fits into the category incredibly well.

Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye & Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Review

You’d have to bonkers (or just not like the whiskey) to think this whiskey doesn’t strengthen the whole of Irish Whiskey. It’s the first time in the modern age we have seen oats used effectively and seemingly add to the character of the whiskey (although that could just be my palate trying to make me think it does).

Now we compare this with another Single Pot Still whiskey containing oats which has been released in the modern era, such as The Drumshanbo Single Pot Still Inaugural Release (now before people start complaining that Drumshanbo’s newer SPS release may significantly change my opinion, I can only offer opinion on whiskeys I’ve tried).

Drumshabo SIngle Pot Still Inaugural Release €80.

There’s is absolutely no doubting the superb branding of this product, and as you will see on my Reviews Homepage, I hold this in incredibly high regard. The quality of branding, premium packaging, feel, provenance and transparency does a massive amount to positively influence Consumers opinion of the Irish Whiskey industry worldwide. And this release from The Shed Distillery ticks all of those boxes.

Although on giving a ‘Liquid Insight’ into the product, it doesn’t match up to the Kilbeggan SPS. There is definitely distinctive Pot Still character, and it’s clear throughout the nose and palate that oats are evident, amplifying the cereal notes. Having been matured in ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks there’s a touch of fruit present although it’s really just soft dry sweetness throughout with no great clarity of flavour. In my opinion this is due to a lack of maturity, it displays all the elements that would point to this distillate producing whiskeys with fantastic depth of flavour, and rounded, well balanced palates, if given the time. Time being the defining variable in this case (see I’m not as harsh as expected).

When directly compared with the Kilbeggan Single Pot Still which has layers of flavour, depth and balance, distinct and rounded distillate character, and decent packaging, for €25 less. There’s no competition really. The Kilbeggan SPS pushes the Pot Still Category forward, it adheres to the current Technical file, and gives the consumer a chance to taste a whiskey of superb quality and explore a historic mash bill.

So with all that said, what do the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), the representative body for the Irish Whiskey industry have to say about the topic of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys definition? In an effort to get the answers Laurie O’Dwyer, of Whiskey Chats Podcast, put the question to the Head of the IWA, William Lavelle on a World Whiskey Day special of his podcast. Have a listen here.

My Thoughts on the Conversation

Lavelle fielded the questions incredibly well as I was sure he would given that he probably gets asked these questions by the Irish Whiskey Enthusiast community constantly. When talking about the current ‘restrictiveness’ of the Technical File, he suggested that there are many distilleries producing distillates which adhere to the Technical File and the Pot Still category is sure to be a more diverse sector in the coming decade.

When asked about the production of historic Pot Still mash bills which stand outside of the Technical File, he stated that when the Technical File was created that it was agreed upon by all the parties present at the time. And, he also pointed out that there is nothing stopping Distilleries producing these mash bills and labelling them as Irish Whiskey, he suggested that this could serve to further premiumise their brands and the Irish Whiskey category.

This is a point that I agree with in a way, it would be amazing to have a section of the Shelves of Whiskey shops dedicated to historic Irish Pot Still Mash Bills, especially for anyone looking to specialise their knowledge on distillate characteristics. Although I would presume that the current issues surrounding transparency and labelling restrictions in the Irish whiskey industry could only serve to further confuse the consumer (but that’s a whole other topic).

Lavelle stated that the Technical File hasn’t received any applications for editing from the Industry at this point in time, adding clarity to another of Peter Mulryan’s comments on the Stories & Sips Podcast. Peter stated that they had no intention of attempting to have the Technical File amended until there are enough voices behind the cause, stating that there are more voices joining the cause as more distilleries become operational throughout Ireland. So it appears that it it is only a matter of time before they do challenge the technical file, and with that in mind Mulryan made it clear that they were experimenting with as many historic mash bills as possible in the Blackwater Distillery.

In summary, it is clear that the Pot Still category is incredibly important to the Irish Whiskey industry. It is fantastic to see new entrants to the category, adding variance and depth to the Pot Still whiskeys available on the market today. But, a large amount of responsibility is held by the Distilleries and Brands, who must ensure they are releasing Pot Still whiskeys that don’t just further their own brands but further the Pot Still category as a whole.

I, personally, hope that in the future we do see whiskey like the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye under the Pot Still banner. It would have been a shame if this distillate was blended away in a the core range blend if BeamSuntory hadn’t released it, which was a real possibility according to former Kilbeggan Distilling Co. Global Brand Ambassador and industry legend, John Cashman.

Although, I am acutely aware that Single Pot Still whiskey globally is rarely understood, and adding endless mash bills to the category could also fuel the confusion which already surrounds the Pot Still category. It will once again fall to IDL & Pernod Ricard to grow the category with their chosen brand, Redbreast, as they did with Jameson for Irish Whiskey as a whole. But when they describe Pot Still as whiskey made with only Malted and Unmalted Barley through their Brand Teams globally it may smother the efforts of smaller producers attempting to make these Historic or ‘innovative’ Pot Still mash bills relevant.

We are still very early in the Renaissance of Irish Whiskey as a whole, never mind the Revival of Pot Still Irish Whiskey, we as an industry must proceed with caution and ensure that we keep our messaging consistent. The sooner the decision is made on whether to amend the Technical File the better.

Mark

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