Darragh McCullough: Distillers have big questions to answer on role of grain imports in the great 'Irish' whiskey boom

Provenance: Large quanities of imported maise are being used for malting
Provenance: Large quanities of imported maise are being used for malting
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

How Irish is 'Irish' whiskey? This is a valid question that our cereal growers have been asking for years. But nobody has been listening.

In the interim, the Irish distilling sector has grown more than 50-fold in the last 40 years, from a mere two distilleries in the mid-1980s to a point where 50 are planned to be operational by 2025.

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Over the last decade alone, output has more than doubled to over 370 million litres of whiskey. That equates to a requirement for approximately 350,000 tonnes of grain.

However, Irish farmers are contracted to supply less than a quarter of this amount.

Last year they were contracted to produce 160,000 tonnes of malting barley, but more than half of this was destined for beer making.

Distillers will point to an additional requirement for unmalted grain, but even if another 64,000 tonnes of feed barley is included to match the requirement for distilling, it still leaves the vast majority of the grain requirement coming from somewhere other than fields on the Emerald Isle. Much of it is maize from France.

When I queried the organisation representing Irish whiskey distillers, the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), on the figures, they told me that "the majority of malt and grain used by Irish distilleries is Irish".

Despite several follow-up emails, the IWA was unable to provide any figures to back up this statement. Instead, they wanted to know where I got my information.

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That got me wondering if Irish distillers were claiming that imported grain that had subsequently been malted here was classified as 'Irish' malt.

If this is the case, it is further proof of the a disingenuous approach by this multi-billion-euro business.

Only this year they secured a legal framework governing what qualifies as Irish whiskey. This is the valuable EU 'geographical indication status' (GIS) which offers protection for the current production standards in the same way that the provenance of Champagne, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese is protected to ensure that only product from those regions can bear those prestigious names.

But the key difference for Irish whiskey makers is that there is no mention in the GIS about or where one of its key ingredients, grain, must come from. Can you believe it? In the same way that only the smoke in Irish smoked salmon actually needs to be from Ireland, only the distilling of Irish whiskey needs to be rooted in Ireland.

The technical file produced by the Department of Agriculture to spell out what all 'Irish' whiskey must comply with states that since the 6th century, "the principles of creating 'Uisce Beatha' have not changed over the years.

"This long and proud heritage has led to the creation of products, whose characteristics... and reputation are directly attributable to its geographical origin."

Does this codology give this €5 billion industry the confidence to play fast and loose with its reputation?

How shocking is it that distillers here are ignoring Irish grain in favour of trucking in imported maize to save €0.05 per kilo of grain?

In fact the saving is even less than this per 700ml bottle of whiskey that often retails for €50 - in other words less than 0.1pc.

There are a few exceptions of course - West Cork Distillers and Waterford Distillery are two of the most prominent examples of distilleries using only Irish grain.

Regardless of where they are sourcing their grain, the margins in the whiskey business are juicy enough to allow many of the operators to spend up to 20pc of their revenues on marketing.

And the money continues to pour into the sector in pursuit of these turbo-charged profits. The French drinks conglomerate Pernod Ricard that owns many of the top Irish brands, including Jameson, plans to sink another €250m into their 128ac site at Midleton.

I'm all for investment here by big multi-nationals. But Irish whiskey cannot be produced anywhere else in the world. It should be a slam dunk for the Irish tillage sector given that its primary ingredient apart from water is grain.

The grain and the heritage behind turning it into Irish whiskey is the story that underpins billion-euro brands like Jameson.

So why have we let that story, our agricultural history and our growers' passion be hijacked by an industry that isn't prepared to fully answer questions about the provenance of the raw materials for their brands?

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