Why Irish Distilleries Shouldn’t be Forced to Only Buy Irish Grains

As you all know, grain is the basis for all whiskey distillation in Ireland. In-fact, its estimated that the whiskey distilling industry in Ireland uses up to 350,000 tons of grain annually producing whiskey, a number that is likely to rise as more and more distilleries open their doors in Ireland.

Barley and maize (also known as corn) are the most commonly used grains in Ireland, with wheat, rye and oats being used in smaller quantities. When producing whiskey, the quality of the grains are of paramount importance and this quality is directly linked to the quality of distillate that it produces. That said, not all barley is suited for distilling. Distilling grade barley has to be grown in a way to maximise the amount of carbohydrates, for high yields in fermentation, while keeping proteins low, to keep unwanted sulphur compounds at bay.

People often forget that at its core, whiskey is an agricultural product. Without good growing seasons, successful harvests and healthy grains, there would be no good whiskey. Unfortunately, being an agricultural product, whiskey is prone to being affected by freak environmental events, like the Irish drought of 2018, which can lead to whole harvest of crops being completely out of spec for distilling barley.

In the case of the drought of 2018, distilling in the distilling season of 2019 found it hard to find barley that was in spec for distilling. Thankfully, as the industry operates in an open market economy, distillers were able to import barley from other countries that did not experience a drought in 2018. The imported barley was in spec for distilling and enabled distillers to continue to uphold their quality of distillate and keep a consistency of flavour across their batches.

This free market principle has always existed in the world of Irish whiskey. In-fact, it has existed throughout the recorded history of whiskey across the world. Distillers across the world have been importing grains when they are in need of differentiated flavour or for security of quality inputs. Japan purchases most of its barley from Australia and Scotland. The US purchases Scottish malt and Canadian rye. Canada too imports grains from both the US and Scotland.

In Ireland, brewers have been importing malt from England for generations. Countries specialise into what they have a comparative advantage in, and other nations, like England, have held the mantle of much of the speciality malting world. In whiskey, we see examples of imported grains across the country. For example, the original Dunvilles in Northern Ireland were importing maize for use in column still distillation for decades up until their decline, and in the Republic, Andrew Jameson (manager Jameson Bow St.), was quoted in the 1908 Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits, stating that “We have used Scotch barley, and we have used English barley… it is nearly always Irish oats, but rye is a very difficult thing to buy nowadays grown in Ireland.” Showing that even in the early 1900’s, one of the most famous Irish distillers, who had their own maltings, were purchasing imported grains for use in their production in Ireland.

The open market nature of whiskey is what enables producers to safeguard themselves against localised environmental impacts that would be detrimental to their distilling season. Being able to import grains also enables distillers to differentiate their flavour profiles with the addition of non-native grains and processes that are not commercially available in Ireland, such as peated malt.

While I believe that the free market nature of the whiskey industry not only allows for a greater investigation of flavour and protects the industry against environment impacts, not all agree with me. In recent months there have been repeated calls from farmers groups and one distillery to force Irish distilleries to only be able to use Irish grown grains in the distilling process, which you may have guessed, is something that I disagree with.

Firstly, it is important to note that we produce great grain in Ireland, and lots of it is used in both the brewing and distilling industries. Irish distilleries and breweries should use Irish grains wherever they can, in my opinion. Not only are they great agricultural products, investment into Irish farmers boosts jobs and stimulates the economy. This I wholeheartedly agree with and promote. What I do not agree with is Irish distilleries being forced to buy Irish.

So, what are my issues then? As I have already mentioned, a free market enables distilleries to safeguard themselves against poor harvests and out of spec grain, and to help differentiate themselves in terms of flavour. Furthermore, there is no historical precedent for protectionist policies nor is there an international precedent for this either.

A protectionist system in Ireland is something that I might be able to support if it was inherently in the interest of the consumer, but this movement is not. This idea of legislating the brewing and distilling industries into only using Irish grains was originally proposed by a farmers’ interest group who were seeking higher prices that they get for their barley crops that are sold for brewing and distilling, which appears to me should have been a negotiation to have with the malting companies rather than a seeking a legislation battle with brewers and distillers.

Damand curve
A demand curve demonstrating what happens to price when demand on a fixed quantity increases. Source: invesopedia. 

Forcing Irish distilleries and breweries to only use Irish grains creates a national monopoly on grain that would absolutely see large spikes in the prices achieved by farmers selling their grain, as demand outstripped supply. While this drastic price hike is exactly the objective of this movement, it in no way benefits the consumer, in-fact I would strongly suggest that it hurts the consumer and the whiskey industry in the long run. As supply rises to meet demand, prices would naturally fall, although, prices would fluctuate as harvests were bountiful or scarce, creating a very volatile grain market for distillers. This would ultimately make the end product, price unstable too.

This is an issue as internationally, the global whiskey market is price stable. From year to year, whiskey prices on the shelves are incredibly stable. Save for the implementation of tariffs or hyper inflation, in most cases a bottle of Jameson today will cost almost exactly the same next year. If Irish distilleries were constrained to only using Irish grain there would likely be massive fluctuations in prices from year to year. Bountiful years would naturally see grain prices drop but years with poor crop yields or out of spec grain would lead to massive hikes in available in spec grains or simply price hikes for any grain that was available, whether it was in spec or not, hindering the quality of distillate being produced.

This amount of price instability could very easily find its way to the shelves. Imagine a consumer purchasing their favourite bottle of Irish whiskey for €30 today and seeing it on the shelf for €45 two months later, while all other categories of whiskey stayed price stable. They would have to be incredibly loyal category consumers to not simply change their purchasing habits to purchase something more price stable. It is a simple economics problem from top to bottom.

I have already mentioned that counties specialise in industries that they have a competitive advantage in. This is another basic economics principle. Other nations like England and Germany have been supplying the beer industry with speciality malts for centuries because they have the competitive advantage in those industries, which is why you see very small amounts of speciality malts in Ireland. Forcing Irish only grains on brewers and distillers will see an immediate loss in exogenous flavours, that will take a long time to become established again in Ireland, and as they will be producing much smaller quantities than those maltsters in England & Germany, the subsequent prices from the new Irish maltings will be higher. Although, speciality malts like peated malt won’t be the greatest loss of flavour in this protectionist scenario, maize (corn) will be.

Maize is the backbone to the blended whiskey industry in Ireland with the majority of grain distilleries in the country using imported French maize as the basis for the distillation. Maize is not a native grain to Ireland, but hey neither is the potato. Although, unlike the trusty spud, maize is a tropical crop that requires large amounts of sunshine and is very difficult to grow to distilling quality here in Ireland. With these protectionist policies, maize would almost certainly be lost as an ingredient in Irish distilling. The current argument being put forward by farmers groups is a like for like swap of the more temperate wheat crop for the tropical maize and while this would theoretically would be possible from a process point of view, it would completely change the flavour of Irish whiskey as we know it.

Wheat and maize distillates have incredibly different flavour profiles, with maize having the sweeter flavour aspect that is a key cornerstone of Irish whiskey, while wheat has traditionally a drier flavour. This change would completely change the flavour of the powerhouse blended whiskeys that lead the Irish whiskey market, especially if it was an over night change in stocks. Wheat can certainly be used, but most distilleries will use it as a choice, to drive flavour in one direction, rather than as a straight substitute for maize.

While this swap would be theoretically be possible from a technical perspective, distilling wheat is a different process to maize and the glutenous content of the grain will gum the plates of the column stills requiring frequent shut downs for cleaning, which effects efficiencies and ultimately the cost to produce the distillate, which are costs that could be passed to the consumers. Ultimately, the choice of grains to produce spirit with, affects both the bottom line in terms of cost and of flavour and should be a choice for the company themselves in my opinion.

Overall, I would possibly be in favour for all Irish grains if ultimately it was in the consumers’ interest. As it stands, this push for all Irish grains only seems to serve a demand for higher grain prices with the consumer ultimately paying for it. Don’t get me wrong though. Do I believe that Irish farmers make fantastic grains? Of course. Do I believe that farmers should get paid more for their grains? Probably, its tough work and good quality grain. I also believe that Irish distilleries should use Irish grains wherever possible and in as much quantity as possible. As I mentioned, it keeps people employed and stimulates the economy. But I do not believe that Irish distilleries should be forced into a protectionist industry that can only purchase grains from Irish farmers.

The consumer would be the one to lose. It would likely create an unstably priced industry, where the flavour of the industry would change completely, and it would lose out against international price stable competition who can protect their industries from environmental impacts on the grains through imports.

Shop local. Support Irish farmers. Support Irish breweries and distilleries, but don’t impose protectionist legislation to make that happen.

5 thoughts on “Why Irish Distilleries Shouldn’t be Forced to Only Buy Irish Grains

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  1. I think it would be a good idea to use just Irish barley for Single Malt Irish Whiskey – not for blends and not yet for Single Pot Irish Whiskey, but just Single Malt Irish Whiskey.

    1. Hey Jason! Thanks for your comments and thoughts! What’s the thought process behind just making single malt Irish only? Why not them all? I’d like to hear your thoughts

      1. If I understand the process correctly – the quality of the unmalted barley for single pot still Irish whiskey is more important than the for the malted barley in Single Malt.

        This would also allow the Irish farming sector time to adapt to the new needs for the distilling industry. Maybe then in 10 years time single pot still whiskey will also use just Irish barley.

        Where the ingredigents come from for blends really doesn’t matter. 🙁

  2. Hi Matt,

    Tend to agree with one caveat: even outside of the country of the grain’s origin, the diversity of seed stock has been reduced by the demands of the brewing industry. I understand that the stuff being grown is very cost effective in terms of agricultural production, and also in its performance capabilities for brewers and distillers.

    Your point about the dubious value of limiting production geographically is valid, but we should also be concerned as consumers when we miss out on the flavor possibilities offered by less efficient heritage growers.

    In the end, I suspect this becomes a question only the consumers will answer. In short, are we willing to adopt a new and unprecedented purity test for Irish whiskey that doesn’t promise any discernible change or improvement in the quality of the beverage and certainly will increase the price. This consumer says no.

    On the other hand, am I as a consumer willing to pay a premium for spirit made from heritage grain that promises to deliver a product similar to the whiskeys that earned the worldwide reputation for excellence in years gone by? Or simply offers distinct flavor profiles that can’t be achieved by the mass production grains? In this case, this consumer says yes.

    My $.02

  3. I’m not sure the argument is very strong in terms of seasonal price – it takes approx 1kg of malted barley to make a 70cl bottle of whiskey (found on a forum post on https://www.connosr.com but would be great to know values for Irish whiskey).

    The wholesale price of unmalted barley is about e170-200 per ton to the farmer. Not sure of losses in the malting process but assuming it’s 1:1 (just to give us a value to discuss) that means the cost is 17-20c per bottle. So between good and bad harvests if the grain cost doubled in extreme circumstances it wouldn’t make much of a dent into the price of a e30 bottle never mind anything in the higher price brackets.

    Not disagreeing with the principle of your post and availability during bad harvests would certainly be an issue, but just don’t think the economic side will have all that big an impact on the consumer.

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