The Next Disrupting Force in Irish Whiskey – Single Pot Still Whiskey

“Disruptor” is a noun too often bandied about in whiskey press releases to talk about newly released brands that bring very little disruption to a category.

Most claim that their new whiskey will cause radical change within the category, and while some may hold this as a legitimate objective for their brand, most fail to achieve this.

In-fact, I would go as far to suggest that there has not been a true disruptive force in the Irish whiskey industry for some time.

Please do not mistake this article as a slight against any innovative brands, but simply an observation of the landscape of the industry.

That said, my observation may be on the brink of being obsolete. A change is brewing within the industry, which I believe will be multifaceted and with it will alter how consumers approach and bring with it a whole new tapestry of new flavours to the category, and that change is the second wave of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.

For the past 60 years, Single Pot Still Irish whiskey has been a closely guarded house with malt and barley doing the heavy lifting of the category. In-fact, with the ratification of the Irish Whiskey Technical File in 2019, it codified the definition of single pot still whiskey to only allow “up to 5% other grains” in it, which did not accurately reflect the culinary mashbill history of Single Pot Still production on the island.

As you likely well know, Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is the fastest growing category of Irish whiskey for the past 5 years. This has sparked the new wave of Irish distilleries to ensure that their own whiskey production schedules included Single Pot Still spirit in them. Thankfully, we are now seeing these new wave of distilleries announce their spirits’ third and fifth birthdays, and even an impending tenth birthday in one case (looking at you Pearse Lyons!).

This is what I consider the first wave of the new disruptive force in the industry, the coming on line of a multitude of distilleries’ first single pot still whiskeys, bringing with them a plethora of flavours from each unique distillery character and bespoke mashbill selection, under the current 5% rules.

Furthermore, outside of the new wave of distillers we are also seeing massive demand for Single Pot Still whiskey in the bulk spirits market also. This far outstrips demand, with some bulk suppliers selling rights to new make spirit that has not been laid down yet, two to five years in advance in some cases.

Obviously the market is reacting positively to the “premiumisation” of Irish Distiller’s Single Pot Still portfolio and brands are taking note and trying to add our indigenous spirit to their warehouses.

The second wave of Single Pot Still is what I believe will cement its place as a truly disruptive force in the market. As you may have guessed from my previous articles and podcasts, I do not believe that the current Technical File represents the past or future of Single Pot Still whiskey and thankfully in 2021 the industry agreed. The Irish Whiskey Association and the Irish Whiskey Guild each submitted documents to the Department of Agriculture to amend the definition of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey to include “up to 30%” adjunct grains; oats, wheat and rye.

Fionnán O’Connor in Boann Distillery, image rights: Boann Distillery Ltd.

This definition accurately reflects the culinary mashbill history of the island over the past 200 years. This topic was heavily researched by Irish whiskey historian and PhD. candidate Fionnán O’Connor.

The re-introduction of these grains in meaningful quantities and their inter-relationship between each other are what I believe will rock the world of Irish whiskey and solidify Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey’s place as a true disruptor. The new distilleries will likely hold the torch on the experimentation with these grains, learning how to best to utilise oat’s fruity, icing sugar sweetness, with rye’s herbal cured meats character and wheat’s dry, buttery pastry profile, while fluctuating malt’s fruity, floral notes and green barley’s classic pot still spice.

These concepts are not a thing of fantasy either. For any of you whom were lucky enough to sample Boann Distillery’s “Vintage Mashbills” pack in 2021, will know that these grains are very real and significant contributors of flavour.

Boann Distillery’s Vintage Mashbills Pack. Image rights: Boann Distillery Ltd.

Boann Distillery, in association with Fionnán O’Connor, systematically increased each adjunct grain to observe their flavour contributions and their effects on other grains in the mashbill. This Vintage Mashbills campaign showcased a tapestry of flavours in Irish Whiskey that have long been absent from the category. This campaign was a very large first step into the new world of flavour possibilities in the category, that make up my second wave of disruption.

When the new definition of Single Pot Still whiskey is permitted in the Technical File, it will unlock endless new possibilities for distillers on the island to produce a plethora of new and exciting Single Pot Still whiskeys bursting with flavours. A truly exciting new stage of Irish whiskey, for those who choose to champion it!

Fionnán, who is one of the most outspoken advocates of adjunct heavy single pot still mashbills noted that “Irish whiskey as a landscape is feeling the first, still barely audible, tremors of its own tectonic shifts. Anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention understands that with the collective coming of age of our new distillery map, the corresponding map of base spirit styles will very soon taste rich and strange. But stick your ear to the topsoil and you’ll hear what’s still more thrilling than a sheer producer headcount spike: beneath the bedrock there are a handful of distilleries closer almost to volcanic sites. When I see these guys fermenting rye adjuncted SPS with novel yeasts or mixing in their own peated malted oats or manipulating their distilling regimens and mashes into something I don’t even have a name for, it feels more like watching raw bubbling magma than tasting raw spirit. Needless to say, it rocks.”

In-fact, distillers do not need to wait until the Technical File is changed to produce these spirits, it is possible for distillers to lay them down as the catch all classification of “Irish Whiskey” rather than Single Pot Still and simply re-classify them later when the rulings change. Producing ahead of the change in regulations will certainly give some distilleries first mover advantage in this new classification of adjunct rich Single Pot Still Whiskeys.

We’ve seen high adjunct whiskeys already been produced in some great distilleries in Ireland pushing the boundaries of flavour, like Blackwater, Killowen and even Irish Distillers have been laying down very interesting high adjunct spirit over the last few years.

Of course, adjunct production does not come without its challenges and I am sure that many new distilling teams will have their own fun discovering how to efficiently process all these new grains in greater quantities. That said, I’ve full confidence that they will reap the benefit of their hard work in the years to come when we see the new emergence of the fantastic tapestry of new flavours in Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.

So, what do you think? Is the impending wave of new malt and barley Single Pot Still Whiskey going to disrupt the world alone? Or will it take increased popularity of oats, wheat and rye to bring forward a formidable change to the Irish whiskey world? Alternatively, will it be the new wave of Single Pot Still distillers outside of Ireland that champion these grains and bring forward the change that Ireland lags behind?

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