No smoke without ire

Bored Na Moaner

There is massive potential for peat in Irish whiskey. The new breed of distillers recognise this, that the great taste of immolation is precisely the flavour that our over-heated planet deserves. I kid, but there is a space within our category for peated Irish whiskey. Unless you read the technical file, the document governing the entire category, in which there is no specific category for peated Irish whiskey.

Me, dogwhistling.

This all came to a head of late when someone somewhere queried why Beam’s Connemara brand was able to call its liquid peated Irish single malt whiskey on its labels when there is no such category. So once again something that possibly should have been foreseen back when the TF was being written has now come to a head with much internal wrangling over the simple question – should peated Irish whiskey be a category of its own, as is grain, blended, single malt and single pot still, or should it simply exist within those four. 

According to sources, there are two schools of thought within the Irish Whiskey Association on this – on one side, let’s be as the Scots; they don’t have a separate category. Some whiskies have peat, some have none, some tell you on the label when they bring out a peated expression and the rest of the core range is unpeated, some do not. Bully for them, but over here we have had decades of Jameson branding largely based around peat as a key differentiator – ‘the scots do peat and we don’t’. This was then picked up by others as being how you discuss Irish whiskey. 

So there is an assertion that Irish whiskey is unpeated, something that we somehow managed to tie to our obsession with smoothness, as though you might find a lump of charcoal in your peated scotch (even the Irish Whiskey page on Wikipedia perpetuates this myth). The irony of this being that for young distilleries with whiskey aged around the three to four year mark, peat can really soften some of those rough edges, when used right – Great Northern being a good example.

On the other side of the argument is one of possibilities – peat is another string to our bow, another flavour to be explored, another way to celebrate our country and its delicious bogs. It deserves a category. 

Or not, depending on who you ask – apparently there is a relatively even split on this topic within the IWA, but the biggest stumbling block is not whether or not peated deserves its own space, but the concept of re-opening the technical file to edit it, for it has become something of a Pandora’s Box for the IWA. 

Back when it was written there were not so many voices and writing it to suit the titans was a relatively straightforward task. Now, not so much, where it has been decried as either ahistorical bunkum, a mission statement from Irish Distillers Limited, or both. Without being any kind of an expert, I would say that it is a product of its time. Big players had all the cards, and being realistic, not much has changed. They are the ones opening new markets and throwing their sizeable shoulders to the wheel in order to make Irish whiskey sales great again. 

But to re-open the file for addition of peat would send a message to the various factions advocating for mashbill changes, or less of the oedipal focus on massive stills, that the gates are open, so come on down with your edits and let’s drag this tedious document through the wringer for another few years. 

And this is without even contemplating the ruckus that would erupt when the concept of a peated single pot still category would be tabled. Unpeated smelling salts for IDL! Or, maybe not. There is being protective of heritage and then there is commerce.  

Beam, as owners of Connemara whiskey, are presumably down with peat, as are GND.  IDL recently released a peated old Midleton for the super-duper premium market, Bushmills used to peat, but who knows – as two key authors of the tech file, and with IDL dreading demands to change their beloved single pot still category, they may well resist. I have heard mixed reports about who is advocating what, but it appears that the big guns are just as split as the indies. 

I can see both sides – does it really need a category of its own? Is there another way to tell the consumer they are about to drink a peated Irish whiskey? Do we really want to re-open the file and enter some sort of People’s Judean Front situation? The IWA are meeting about this tomorrow, but as this relates to the tech file, the decision ultimately lies with the Department of Agriculture. 

But above all this is this question – if you were going to question the labels on a bottle of Connemara peated single malt Irish whiskey, surely you would ask about the fact it has nothing to do with Connemara? 

Author: Bill Linnane

Freelance writer - or 'word whore' - with the Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, Irish Tatler Man, Evening Echo, and Distilled. Proud owner of the award-defying TripleDistilled.Blog, Ireland's Least Successful Blog™.

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