Irish Independent

A Spirit Reborn

Author of A Glass Apart’ Fionnán O’Connor shares his thoughts on the history of single pot still Irish Whiskey


I n the latter half of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was one of the most highly regarded drinks in the recordkeep­ing world with internatio­nal London merchants selling an average of three Irish cases to every case of Scotch.

Rural distilleri­es such as Bandon, Comber, Monasterev­an, Nun’s Island, and Coleraine found their whiskeys patronised by parliament members and New York property tycoons alike while the full-bodied drams of old Dublin legends such as Powers, Roe’s, and Marrowbone Lane had earned a reputation as the best brown liquor that money could buy.

At the heart of Dublin distilling’s halcyon days lay the uniquely ‘mixed’ mash bill of traditiona­l Irish ‘pure pot still’ whiskey. Although it often included small portions of wheat and oats, this definitive­ly Irish style was mainly defined by the inclusion in the mash of raw unmalted barley along with the malt.

Neither a blend nor a single malt, the result was a spirit with the same cereal depth of its otherwise identical single malt sister but with a spicy bristle from the raw unmalted barley and a noticeably thicker and more lathery texture.

Having originally become popular in Ireland as a means of dodging the malt tax of 1785, this peculiar and technicall­y inefficien­t mash bill had subsequent­ly become the hallmark of Irish distilling as a trade. Long after the tax was repealed, the recipe remained. The ratio of malted to unmalted barley varied from distillery to distillery and that textural diversity was an intimate part of the lifeblood of Irish whiskey itself.

When English journalist Alfred Barnard made his famous tour of ‘The Whisky Distilleri­es of the United Kingdom’ in the 1880s, he wrote about the “fat and creamy” pot still drams, “pronounced in the ancient aromas of Irish Whisky, so dear to the hearts of connoisseu­rs”. Of the 28 distilleri­es that Barnard visited, only two were devoted to what we now call single malt whiskey - the rest were simply too busy making the most beloved tipple in the British Empire, what we now know as single pot still Irish whiskey.

However, by 1909 the cracks in the pot still were starting to show as the popularity of the column still invented by Aeneas Coffey had spread in Scotland. Earlier that year, a royal commission declared whiskey to be the grain distilled product of either a pot or a column still and large Scottish firms were given the green light to expand their industry at the full capacities of their capital and equipment.

By the time Ireland’s civil war started in 1922, a discreet embargo on the one hand and prohibitio­n on the other, left the Irish distilleri­es with very few people to sell to.

Irish whiskey became a clear target for forgery as Al Capone and company began selling counterfei­t ‘Irish whiskeys’ browned with anything from cola to battery acid.

These rotgut spirits were produced as quickly as the mob could sell them and by the time prohibitio­n was repealed, Irish whiskey’s reputation was either fading with a dying generation or degrading into a byword among its successors.

To make matters worse, the fledgling Irish Free State entered a trade war with Britain and as blended scotch took its first steps into the global success that it enjoys to this day, over three quarters of Ireland’s distilleri­es bit the dust in quick succession and Irish pure pot still almost vanished entirely.

A hundred years since Barnard’s visit, in 1987, the island of Ireland was littered with the abandoned stills, stone walls and malt chimneys of its long silent distilleri­es and there were only two Irish pot still whiskeys left in existence. One of them was only sold by a specialist wine shop in Dublin and the other was in the process of being discontinu­ed. Old bottles of ‘pure pot still’ whiskey sat on bar shelves here and there across the country gathering dust and some of it even lay forgotten in private cellars.

The one style only made in Ireland came close to extinction but the foresight of Irish Distillers Ltd in laying down stocks of single pot still Irish whiskey at its distillery in Midleton, Co Cork allowed it to re-launch this uniquely Irish spirit in 2010 and it has been reborn – long may it last. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in Unfiltered, the members’ magazine of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

“At the heart of Dublin distilling’s halcyon days lay the uniquely ‘mixed’ mash bill of traditiona­l Irish ‘pure pot still’ whiskey”

 ??  ?? The distillery in Midleton, Co Cork as it is today
The distillery in Midleton, Co Cork as it is today

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