The Evolution of Irish Pot Still Whiskey

Barry Crockett is Master Distiller Emeritus at Irish Distillers. He worked at the distillery in Midleton for 47 years, 31 of which he spent as Master Distiller, retiring in 2013.

I am often asked as to how Irish Pot Still Whiskey evolved and how the definition used to protect the category in the Irish Whiskey Technical File was decided.

The Irish Whiskey Technical File lists that Irish Pot Still Whiskey must be made from a mash which contains a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required. The Irish Whiskey Technical File was published in 2014 after six years of discussion and deliberation amongst all the members of the Irish Spirits Association, to give a strong legal definition to what can and cannot be referred to as Irish whiskey.

The need for a technical file was mandated in 2008 by the European Commission, which sought to standardise the level of detail of all European spirit drinks protected by a Geographical Indication. To retain GI protection for Irish whiskey, the Irish government, through the Department of Agriculture, was required to submit a technical file which set out the definition, production methods and provenance for Irish whiskey and its various styles. This isn’t to say that Irish whiskey was not protected previously; Irish whiskey can trace its protection in law back to 1980 with the passing of the Irish Whiskey Act. When Ireland joined the EU, Irish whiskey’s legal protection was ingrained in the EU’s GI legislation which meant that the EU would pursue protection for Irish whiskey in all its free trade agreement negotiations.

Our own fantastic archivist, Carol Quinn, has carried out close research into how Irish Pot Still Whiskey was made throughout history, and this shows that different types of cereals were used a long time ago, but in most of the cases malted barley and unmalted barley comprised by far the greatest proportion of cereal types used.

My own research of practices dating to the early 19th century shows that different types and proportions of cereals were used. A major motivating factor in the move from all malt was the introduction of a malt tax in 1785. This could be avoided should barley, wheat, oats and indeed rye be used. The decision to use other cereals was motivated by availability and cost, my research also revealed that quality was often compromised by rapid distillation.

Much oats grew in Ireland, but even from the early period distillers used substantial amounts of barley. When it could not be sourced from Ireland it was common enough for distillers to import barley from Britain and indeed from France, Denmark, and even Turkey. The minutes of the Cork Distilleries Company show many examples of this.

Distillers of the past responded largely as economics and legislation demanded. While they made references to quality from time to time, what was produced was sold soon after and so bears little relation to whiskey as understood today.

Over time the general pattern involved the use of malted barley, unmalted barley and some oats. The evidence seems to suggest that wheat and rye were phased out due to processing difficulties. At least this is what the records seem to imply in the case of the old Midleton Distillery, which was also producing significant volumes of grain spirit through a Coffey Still. This spirit was for sale into the English market from c.1854.

There was little love lost between the distillers who remained in business and certainly no sharing of production secrets. This applied right up to mid-1960s, thus there was a sort of omertà about the distillation methods and cereal proportions of each distillery. This changed during the formation of Irish Distillers in 1966 when a merger took place between John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son, and Cork Distilleries Company.

As R.E Court and V.H Bowers noted in 1970, Oats remained in use for the prime reason that its husk aided filtration in traditional mash tuns, and it significantly aided the fermentation process.1 With the advent of new technology it was phased out entirely before 1970, as it was not seen as providing any flavour benefit and its alcohol yield was very low in comparison to barley. Accordingly, no oats whatsoever were used in the final years of the older distillery nor in the new Midleton Distillery from 1975.

It was taken as a given that the essential characteristic of flavour contribution to Pot Still Whiskey, or what’s now termed Irish Pot Still Whiskey, arose from malted and unmalted barley. There was no intention to consider oats or other cereal types from the mid to late 1960s onwards where Irish Pot Still whiskey was concerned. Distillation techniques and different cask types were used to generate Pot Whiskeys of different flavours.

The prime objective of the technical file was to define characteristics that would uphold the claim for a uniqueness regarding obtaining a geographical identity for Irish whiskey. This demanded the identification of specific production methods. Clearly, a broad catch-all definition would weaken the claim to have some particularly unique characteristic. The file identified distinctive types of Irish whiskey. These include Irish Malt Whiskey, Irish Pot Still Whiskey, Irish Grain Whiskey, and an overall category termed Irish Whiskey. To merit the term, Irish Pot Still Whiskey had to be brewed from a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, one could include up to 5% of other cereals.

Facilitated by the Irish Spirits Association, the industry consultation about definitions went on for years in the industry, involving all the distilleries on the island at the time. Representatives from Bushmills, Tullamore DEW, Cooley Distillery, and Irish Distillers all approved the final document, and after some discussion, this was then adopted by the Department of Agriculture and filed with the European Commission.

Irish Distillers viewed the protection of Irish Pot Still Whiskey of utmost importance, as it did also for Irish Malt Whiskey and Irish Grain Whiskey. The view was that the essential cereals, where this category was concerned, were malted barley and unmalted barley. This was of long-standing tradition since these cereal types comprised by far the greatest proportion in the mash bill. A catch-all definition would have only served to weaken rather than strengthen protection.

After much discussion among the participants, it was agreed to allow for the admission of up to 5% other cereals. This was in the recognition that some distillers might wish to add a small amount of other cereals for innovation at some future time. This addition rate would not jeopardise the essential characteristic and thus the term Irish Pot Still Whiskey could validly claim its unique provenance.

Anyone who wished could of course use whatever cereal mix they liked but, in that case, the resultant whiskey could not be called Irish Pot Still Whiskey, but rather be termed Irish whiskey/whisky. The purpose of the technical file and its definition was to introduce a provenance behind Irish whiskey and so preserve its status as a premium beverage to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Barry Crockett was born in the Distiller’s Cottage that sits on the grounds of the Old Midleton Distillery and has spent his life in Irish whiskey. At the age of 17, he began learning his craft as a young apprentice to his father and Midleton Master Distiller, Max Crockett, eventually succeeding him as Master Distiller in 1981. During Barry’s time with Irish Distillers, he oversaw the success and renaissance of Irish whiskey. In 1984, Barry developed the award-winning flagship blend from the Distillery, Midleton Very Rare, and in 2011 oversaw the launch of the Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Midleton. Launched to rejuvenate Irish Pot Still Whiskey to its former glory, the pinnacle of the range, Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, marks the first time since John Jameson that an Irish Distillers product has been named after a Master Distiller.

1Court, R. E. and V. H. Bowers 1970. Irish whiskey. Process Biochemistry 5 (10), 1720