Pot Luck of the Irish
The term “malt” makes a drinker’s mind jump to Scotland, the lead producer of malted whiskies, whose beloved liquid barley spirit fills the shelves of liquor stores. Images of pot stills evoke the same visions, suggesting the stately vessels that pepper the glens of Caledonia. But just to the west of whiskey’s main producer lies an island with an equally rich heritage for distilling pure barley whiskey in copper spheres, one that is sometimes overlooked. And its bounty is returning as the Irish whiskey category surges with interesting spirits from new distilleries as well as broader choices from the Emerald Isle’s established producers.
If you drink Irish whiskey you might know Ireland for its amicable, light blends, but just over a century ago it was also the wellspring of the kind of artisanal malted whiskey that was the favorite of connoisseurs. Hard times beset the once pervasive distilling industry of the Emerald Isle, leading to fewer distilleries and fewer alternatives, but those traditions never died. Today, Irish whiskies are being rejuvenated, and the best example comes in the many Irish whiskeys made in two varieties that rival blends: single malt and single pot still. If your experience with the island’s quaff has been limited to the enjoyment of the blended type in an Irish coffee, you’ll do yourself a favor to savor the purely pot-still types that are beginning to flow in greater volume.
So much good blended Irish whiskey—e.g., Jameson, Powers and Tullamore D.E.W.—exists that it is easy to overlook other choices. Furthermore, a few myths would seem to limit the
possibilities of Irish whiskey. For instance, the triple-distillation method that so often gives the drink its smooth quality is so
ommon that it is often thought to be required. Untrue. A long history exists for double distillation and a few contemporary whiskeys still tap the style. Another misconception is that Irish whiskey can’t be made with peat. However, a handful of Irish whiskeys now smoke their barley, and this style of production, which is so common to the Islay region of Scotland, certainly was used in the early days of Irish whiskey when coal was not such an available heat source.
Some of the variants involve pot distilling alone. (As with Scotch whisky, Irish blends contain grain whiskeys made in a column still.) The Irish version of single malt is easily understood if you know Scotch: it’s made purely from malted barley in a pot still at one distillery. The other type—the one through which Ireland originally made its whiskey reputation—is a little more complex. In Ireland, pot still whiskey (also called single pot still and pure pot still) contains a combination of malted barley and unmalted barley. It came to be—as is so with much of Irish whiskey—as a reaction to political history.
Depending on whom you listen to, either Ireland or Scotland can claim the title of the birthplace of whiskey (spelled whisky if you happen to wear a kilt). Both realms began distilling grain around the 11th century, and by the 19th century about 2,000 stills (a lot of them unlicensed) were operating in Ireland. At the turn of that century, all distilling was done in a copper pot. In 1823, a British tax made it greatly more feasible to make alcohol legally and legal distilling surged in both Ireland and Scotland.
With the invention of the more industrial and efficient column still in 1830, the two countries diverged stylistically. The Scots found that if they made whisky with grains other than barley in the new contraption and blended it with the product of the pot still, they could make a more economical and lighter dram. The Irish stuck to their copper pots, distilling three times to make their whiskey more approachable. As a result, throughout the century Irish was known as the whiskey for connoisseurs. A series of unfortunate events would cause a flip-flop in those
positions and obscure some of the whiskey-making skills of Erin.
The 20th century was unkind to Irish whiskey. First, in 1909, a suit failed that had been brought by makers of malt whiskey to stop blenders from calling their product whiskey. Then in 1919, the Irish War of Independence broke out and several distilleries in Dublin (then the center of whiskey making) were occupied and damaged, some even destroyed. When independence was won in 1922, it meant that whiskey makers were locked out from their profitable trade with the British Empire. Prohibition had already come to the United States, another hugely important market. While the Scots were able to ship to Canada and smuggle whisky into the U.S., that option wasn’t open to the Irish. At the end of Prohibition, many Americans had lost their taste for the spirit.
One earlier political development had proved serendipitous for Irish whiskey, however. In 1785, a tax was imposed on malted barley. In the malting process barley is soaked in water to germinate and then dried. This releases enzymes that create sugars that yeast can feed on in fermentation. However, it is only necessary to malt a portion of the barley. To soften the tax bite, Irish distillers mixed in unmalted barley. As well as saving money, they found the change in grain recipe gave the whiskey a pleasant spicy taste. They liked it so much that when the tax was repealed in 1855, they kept right along mixing the two types of barley.
But by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Irish whiskey had begun to consolidate and focus on blends. By the mid-1970s, all the whiskey in the Republic of Ireland was made at the New Midleton Distillery in Cork. With Old Bushmills of Northern Ireland, that left only two producers on the island, down from almost 30 in the late 19th century. Production had dropped to less than five percent of what was made at the turn of the century.
But aggressive international marketing would create a renaissance in Ireland, and by 1987 the Cooley Distillery had reopened in County Louth. More were to come in the country. The once shuttered Kilbeggan, Dingle and Tullamore distilleries returned to operation. And in the last half decade there has been a flurry of newly built distilleries. Today, at least three dozen are operating or are in the nascent stage. By 2015, the Teeling facility had brought distilling back to the long-silent whiskey district of Dublin. The result has been a focus on the pot-still styles. In fact, they had never really disappeared. Single malts and pot still whiskeys were always being made, but typically used as components for a blend. Those styles are now being featured on their own—many brands being supplied from the storehouses of the New Midleton Distillery. Other makers, like Slane, are waiting for their own pot still whiskeys to mature before offering them side-by-side with their blends.
All of this change in Ireland’s distilling scene means more choices for consumers, a return to the taste of old that was long gone. Turn to page 61 for a look at great pot-made Irish whiskeys we can sample right now.