Trad Pot technicalities

Posted 04 April 2019 by Matt / In Midleton
The Dramble reviews Red Spot 15 year old

Bottle Name: Red Spot 15 year old

ABV: 46%
Distillery: Midleton
Region: Ireland Age: 15

Where does the line lie between protecting tradition and limiting innovation? In the case of Irish pot still whiskey, tradition seems rather mired in the mists of time – there’s little historical evidence to provide a precise definition of what pot still actually is. The category is now offered some protection in the form of GI (Geographical Indication) status, but the specifics of the production methods (as detailed in the so-called Technical File) seem more in tune with current shape of the industry than they do with the past.

The GI status of Irish whiskey has set the foundations of what producers up in Scotland (with the powerful SWA) take for granted – established production methods and standards. Similarly to copyright, a GI provides a ‘right’ to use the indication to prevent third parties whose products do no conform to the applicable standards. I.E. Irish whiskey produced in Egypt. Yes, I know how that sounds, but don’t just wave it off as obviously ridiculous – counterfeiting is most certainly real.

A GI doesn’t prevent someone from making a product using the same techniques as laid out in those standards – as such, there’s still some ways to go for the Irish whiskey sector to clamp down on infringements. Forging and false labelling is a bigger problem than you might expect, and whilst the EU has granted GI status to Irish whiskey, this still needs to be recognised and protected in all of the categories’ export markets where there is an existing GI registry. In short, there’s a lot of (costly – lawyers are a nightmare) work to do to ensure that the protection that GI status offers, is upheld. The Irish Whisky Association (IWA) has applications ongoing within Australia, South Africa, Russian, Indian and Thailand.

But, back to the Technical file. Pot still is refined as:

“…a spirit distilled from a mash of a combination of malted barley, unmalted barley and other unmalted cereals. The mash must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley…”

Producers are all operating well within those boundaries – Teeling are producing a 50/50 pot, others I’ve visited focus on 60/40 split. However, as Richard Woodward notes on some distillers are concerned not by the percentages of malted to unmalted barley, but by the additional clause that specifies the maximum volumes of additional cereals permitted:

“Brewing involves preparation of a mash from a proportional mix of malted and unmalted barley with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.”

In the consultation process for the Technical File submission, some have argued that the mash bills specs, as they currently sit not only have no historical basis (limited evidence shows a huge variance in the volumes of unmalted barley over the centuries), they also stifle innovation by restricting additional cereals so heavily. In essence, playing to the biggest boy on the scene – Irish Distillers and spec-ing the GI for pot still whiskey well within the confines of their established trad pot bottlings such as the Spot series from Midelton.

To my mind, this is no easy square to circle. The Irish whiskey category has been in desperate need of legal certainty - not only in terms of production, but also in terms of labelling – the recently introduced ‘Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) Labelling of Irish Whiskey’ goes some way to ameliorating that much needed aspect. But, at the same time, Irish whiskey does not, and cannot look exactly as it did historically…..the 20th Century saw the closure of almost all of the islands’ distilleries, resulting in a consolidation necessary for the industry to simply survive. Things were simpler then.

With the renaissance of the category fully underway, all eyes are on the future and innovation is already there – particularly in terms of greater transparency and traceability. There can certainly be a focus on what undeniably makes pot still whiskey pot still – unmalted barley. And with a raft of new distilleries coming on stream, there’s a broad canvas on which all of these can paint. But, it’s far from unreasonable to posit that the drive to give the industry protection and legal certainty has moved apace – and it won’t be for years to come before we’ll know whether this defence was actually fetters in disguise.

The Spot range of whiskies have been undergoing a revitalisation since 2012. Red Spot 15 year old – re-imagined and re-released at the end of 2018 is the latest (and oldest) addition to the series. It’s composed of a combination of American ex-bourbon sherry and masala casks which have been aged for ‘at least 15 years’ before being blended and bottled at 46% ABV. A bottle will set you back £105 from Whisky Exchange

Nose: Initially delicate, taking a little time to open in the glass. Apples (both fresh and stewed) sit with peaches, whilst hedgerow berries (redcurrants and elderberries) provide top notes drawn from both the sherry and masala casks. Cinnamon and ginger spicing pep things up – light and dusty rather than intense and piquant. Vanilla toffee runs throughout, supported by toasted breakfast cereals. Reduction is far from necessary, but provides aromas of crushed almonds and zesty limes.

Taste: The arrival is viscid, though not truly weighty – it’s very much in keeping with the overall gentle style. Orange peels and strawberries led off, supported by some louder spicing – ginger and white pepper – both gathering intensity throughout the development. Apples (red and green), burnt caramel and rum and raisin ice-cream add both fruitiness and creaminess – leading into a more grain-based back palate – fresh dried cereals. Dilution expands the fruit palate to include some tropical – mango and pineapple – whilst adding some deeper flavours of liquorice and cinnamon.

Finish: Medium to long with fading fruits and intensifying charred oak which at no point becomes either cloying or astringent.

Red Spot 15 year old is a very welcome addition to the range. It’s a step up both in complexity and in fruit concentration from Yellow Spot and likewise offers a lovely balance from nose to finish. It isn’t however an Irish ‘fruit bomb’ – you’ll need to look further north and more towards malt for those. The price is rather steep (there’s some variance to be had depending on where you’re purchasing this), and in this £100+ category, there’s a lot of competition for your hard earned cash.

Score: 85/100

Master of Malt
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