Guest spirit: Irish Whiskey
Thursday 08 March 2018
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Irish whiskey seems like a pretty unconfrontational drink, with its marketing emphasis on smoothness, lightness of character and triple distillation to grind off those harsh, spirity edges. Yet its history is far more turbulent than one might expect, mired in commercial self-sabotage, protectionism, war and betrayal.
To set the scene, Irish whisky (the ‘e’ was added later) is generally agreed to predate Scotch. Being based in Scotland, this news is likely to get a brick or two thrown through the window of Ferment HQ, but don’t shoot the messenger. Indeed, for the majority of their long and intertwined history, Irish whiskey was considered a superior product to Scotch whisky, and at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s imported whiskey out-sold the home-grown spirit in Scotland itself.
In those days, Irish whiskey was a very different beast though. Distilled in pot stills, much like Scotch is today, ‘pure pot still’ whiskey used an unusual mixed mash bill, which included wheat, oats and (crucially) a quantity of unmalted barley along with the more predictable malt. Originally conceived as a particularly creative tax-dodge, this odd and technically inefficient mash bill gave Irish Whiskey a truly unique character – spicy, with notes of ginger and liquorice on top of the pronounced cereal base – which became a hallmark of the style. Today, Redbreast is an excellent example of this flavoursome heritage style.
Anyone who’s received a bottle of Jameson’s at Christmas is probably now thinking that this description bears absolutely no relation to the inoffensive bottle of sweet, smooth spirit languishing in their drinks cupboard. And they’d be right.
So what happened? In short: the continuous still happened. Perfected by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, the continuous still (sometimes called the patent still or Coffey still) revolutionised distilling the world over. Unlike its forebear the pot still, the continuous still could – as the name suggests – distil continuously, using tall columns filled with copper chambers, each of which behaves like a miniature pot still. This innovation drastically sped up the distilling process, increased the amount of potable alcohol that could be retrieved from a quantity of grain, and produced a spirit that was lighter, smoother and didn’t require as much maturation.
It also opened the floodgates for blended whiskies in Ireland and Scotland, which combined cheap and abundant grain spirit with more expensive but characterful malt spirit, greatly increasing their volumes and swelling their coffers.
Needless to say, the old guard of Dublin’s ‘distilling district’ lost their minds over what they saw as the adulteration of their beloved spirit, and went to war against grain and blended whiskey, which they claimed wasn’t really whiskey at all. While they fought in the courts for a definition which would protect their traditional business, Coffey’s stills spread across Ireland and Scotland, where they were enthusiastically adopted. When in 1909 a royal commission in the UK ruled that whisky was simply a grain spirit distilled in either a pot or column still, Scotch whisky producers such as the giant DCL went into production overdrive.
Blended Scotch whisky soared as a result, emerging as the universally admired global brand it is today (though traditional, single malt, pot still whisky has made a comeback as a premium spirit in the past few decades). Irish whiskey, however, fared less well. The Irish War of Independence lead into the long winter of American prohibition, cutting off a key export market. Even as Scotland’s blended whisky-makers flourished, the lights of Aeneas Coffey’s home market winked out one by one. Irish whiskey, once dominant, had crashed and burned.
By the 1980s, Ireland’s three remaining pot distillers – Jameson, Cork Distillers and Powers – had merged into a single company and threw their lot in with blending, in a desperate bid for survival. In an audacious move that ultimately saved the industry from complete destruction, this united business went out to the world with a new message: that Irish whisky was light, sweet and triple distilled, without any of the smoke or rough edges that make Scotch whisky so challenging. This marketing message, while arguably a betrayal of Ireland’s whiskey heritage, stuck fast.
A proud tradition of craftsmanship and heritage overtaken by commercially-driven mediocrity? This is a story that will surely chime with recognition for beer lovers who endured the dark days of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Just like craft beer though (and to an extent Scotch malt whisky, though the circumstances are somewhat different there) a renewed interest in provenance, flavour and authenticity has rekindled the dying embers of Ireland’s whisky tradition.
As well as Redbreast, John’s Lane single pot still whiskey from Powers (a sister distillery of Jamesons) gives a delicious and authentic glimpse into the combined company’s true history. But the past decade has also seen a flurry of new small distilleries, many of which draw directly from the roots old Irish whiskey with pot stills and big flavour profiles, springing up across the country, taking the total number of distilleries in Ireland to a health 16.
Dingle distillery, founded in 2012 by the Porterhouse group (see page xxx) has gone from strength to strength since releasing its first young, pot-still whiskey in 2016 and has recently invested in a brand new still from Forsyth’s of Scotland (which is kind of a big deal for spirits nerds). Nephin distillery, meanwhile, plays even more explicitly on its heritage, promising “whiskey the way it used to be,” including some peat-smoked expressions.
Teeling distillery has made a big splash, not only because of the international awards it has garnered for its small-batch blended whiskies, but also because brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling chose to open their distillery (the first new distillery in Dublin for 125 years) on the same spot that their ancestor Walter Teeling chose to open his distillery in the 1700s.
Waterford Distillery is mixing heritage with modernity, under the watchful eye of Mark Reynier, who helped Bruichladdich distillery on Islay to considerable success with a very similar formula. Although its whiskies aren’t mature enough for release yet, there is plenty of excitement around the distillery’s experimental and scientific approach to whisky-making, and how it might help shape the future of the category.
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