How does climate impact whiskey?
In the most general definition, whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains (including barley, wheat, corn, and rye) and aged in wooden barrels. The various countries that produce whiskey (or whisky) strictly regulate their respective styles. Today, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we’ll be focusing on Irish whiskey.
Note: For grain spirits distilled in Ireland and the United States, the spelling is “whiskey” (with an “e”). For those distilled in Scotland, Canada, or Japan, use “whisky” (with no “e”).
What makes whiskey Irish?
The word “whiskey” comes from the Irish uisce beatha, meaning “water of life.” Irish whiskey is one of the earliest historical examples of distilled beverages, rising to popularity in Europe during the 12th century. Researchers believe that Irish monks who had learned techniques for distilling perfume during their travels to southern Europe returned to Ireland and modified this technique to craft a drinkable spirit.
In the modern manifestation of the spirit, there are four categories of Irish whiskey: grain, malt, pot still, and blended. These categories are largely distinguished by their mash bill, or the specific mix of grains used in the creation of the spirit. All Irish whiskey must spend at least three years aging in wooden casks and be below 94.8% ABV.
Grain Irish whiskey has a mash bill that contains no more than 30% malted barley along with other whole, unmalted grains (corn, wheat, or barley). The mash ferments in a column still (also called a cofey still, or continuous still), which is a relatively modern stainless steel distillation vessel that is highly effective for processing large quantities of grains and is designed to capture alcohol directly from the ferment.
Malt Irish whiskey uses 100% malted barley. To malt grains, distillers soak the grains in water to entice germination. They then halt germination by drying the grains with hot air. This process converts the grains into enzymes and fermentable sugars, thereby impacting the flavor of the final distilled product. Malt Irish whiskey undergoes distillation in a copper pot still (or an alembic still), a precursor to the column still. A pot still converts the ferment into vapor before condensing it into liquid alcohol.
Pot Still Irish whiskey has a mash bill of at least 30% malted barley, at least 30% unmalted barley, and at most 5% other grains. As the name suggests, this style of whiskey must be distilled in a pot still.
Blended Irish whiskey is a mixture of any two or more of the above styles.
Is there really a relationship between whiskey and climate?
When I mentioned to my friends in the beverage world that I was working on a column exploring the intersection of climate change and Irish whiskey, I encountered more than a few confused looks. I was surprised that the same folks who advocate for natural and organic winemaking practices as a way to reconnect with wine as an agricultural product had not extended this thinking into the world of distilled spirits. Sure, they acknowledged, the production of any alcohol has a carbon footprint and water cost, but the question my industry friends all lobbed back to me was this: Does the climate have any impact on how Irish whiskey tastes?
Whiskey industry professionals agree that a changing climate has a tangible impact on their products, particularly during the aging process in the barrels. Wooden barrels are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Higher temperatures create a stronger interaction between the spirit and the wood, which has a notable payoff in the flavor of the final whiskey. In Ireland and Scotland, where the climate is typically more mild, the impact of temperature on whiskey production is characteristically less pronounced. However, as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, distilleries have to be more conscious of controlling the climate where they store their barrels for aging.
To study the impact of climate on whiskey production, Boann Distillery in Ireland and Taluna Distillery in Colorado are undertaking a fascinating experiment. In 2021, both simultaneously filled seven identical casks each due to mature into whiskey in 2026. Both distilleries used the exact same production methods and mash bills, with the only difference being their ingredients come from their respective local environments. The results of this experiment will surely satisfy those curious about the effect of climate on the palate of this complicated spirit.
The Irish Whiskey Industry's Commitment to Sustainable Practices
In May 2022 the Irish Whiskey Association launched “Irish Whiskey: Sustainable Together,” a roadmap for how the industry will undertake major projects for ecological, social, and economic sustainability. This plan brings together the sustainable development goals of the entire island, as whiskey is one of the largest industries for both the North and South states.
Here are some of the primary measures outlined in the roadmap:
- Reducing water usage “The roadmap supports the principle of ‘less-water-in, less-effluent-out’ and sets a target of reducing the volumes of water used per litre of whiskey distilled. The Association and Irish Water have agreed plans to deliver bespoke, accredited Water Stewardship training days for distilleries.”
- Supporting Irish farming “The Irish whiskey industry purchases over 100,000 tonnes of Irish barley and malt annually and the roadmap commits to buying even more from Irish farmers.”
- Supporting the circular economy “Every year, over 350,000 tonnes of co-products from Irish whiskey production (spent grain/pot ale) are reused to become high-quality animal feed and the roadmap commits to strengthening Irish whiskey’s place in the circular economy.”
- Energy efficiency “The roadmap proposes signature project to support innovation on energy efficiency within the industry. This will involve members sharing best practice on energy efficiency; and it will include state agencies and key stakeholders to support implementation.”
- Tree planting “The Association has nominated Trees on the Land as their all-island tree-planting partner, allowing members to fund tree-planting – which will be comprised of at least 50 per cent oak trees – through a consistent expert programme.”
- All-Ireland Pollinator Plan: “The Association has signed up to support the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (AIPP) and will be working with the AIPP to support members to implement actions on distillery and maturation sites.”
After the release of the “Sustainable Together” roadmap, in June 2022, Midleton (the distillery that produces Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, and the Spots) announced their plans to become Ireland’s first carbon neutral distillery by 2026. The company is investing $52.5 million to transition their facility to more efficient equipment and sources of energy. Ultimately, this decision is an economical one as much as it is ecological as these increases in energy efficiency will also make their operation more cost efficient.Print