The Evolution of Irish Whiskey
Irish whiskey has typically been viewed as primarily mild, smooth, and inoffensive by experts. A resurgent Irish whiskey industry is eagerly pulling the rug out from under those outdated presumptions. Some of these opinions may have had some validity in the past.
Irish whiskey is starting to provide an astonishing spectrum of styles for those with an experimental palate. We may expect this category to lead us to some pretty unexpected places in the upcoming years.
History of Irish Pot Still Whiskey
Irish pot still whiskey occupied a lofty place as the world's leading spirit in the 19th century. However, a series of calamities befell the category to such an extent that by the late 1970s, all production was consolidated into one company, Irish Distillers Limited (IDL). They managed only from two distilleries: Midleton and Bushmills. Bushmills produced malt whiskey, and Midleton produced varieties of pot still whiskeys. Bushmills continued to serve as the backbone of its blends, while Midleton produced many types which went into blends like Jameson, Tullamore, Paddy's, and Powers.
All of these blends share the trait of being triple distilled, resulting in a light and fruity spirit. These blends are also typically aged in ex-bourbon barrels, which give the finished product a delicate vanilla and spice flavor.
The popularity of blended Irish whiskey increased worldwide. Its great popularity did, however, come at a cost. This was the decline of stylistic variety within the category.
Cooley and John Teeling
Things started to change when John Teeling converted a biofuel plant in Cooley, County Louth, into a whiskey distillery in the late 1980s. While Cooley mostly created blends, they also began to explore the limits of malt whiskey.
The Cooley method was a little different and a little more in line with Scottish customs. Teeling decided to double distill his malt whiskey, which resulted in a more full-bodied spirit. Peated single malt Irish whiskey was again available with his new expression, Connemara.
Tyrconnell–a world-class and popular single malt Irish whiskey–used cask finishing methods to create their masterpieces. First, they would rest their ex-bourbon cask matured malt spirit for a few months in ex-sherry, port, and Madeira casks before bottling. They also had the experience of producing whiskey for other brands and successfully producing many different types of whiskey with only one small distillery.
In 1988 Pernod Ricard acquired Irish Distillers Limited. They envisioned what the category could be and followed through with their strategy.
Irish Pot Still Whiskey
While all of this was going on, Midleton was where the seeds for the renaissance of the Irish pot still style were planted. This Irish spirit produced a blend of fruity aromas, a creamy texture, and a spicy finish by combining unmalted and malted barley with other grains in the mash bill.
Irish pot still whiskey was the most popular spirit in the 19th century and came close to disappearing entirely. Midleton was the only distillery making this style for much of the last half-century.
Most of the pot still whiskey in Ireland is used to create Jameson and other Irish blends. Today, every bottle of blended whiskey made by Irish Distillers Limited contains a small amount of pot still whiskey.
Single Pot Still Whiskey
If you ever came across Redbreast or Green Spot, you'd know they were the final two survivors. This style of whiskey has survived, thanks to IDL's commitment to preserve and rejuvenate these brands, even though there was no clear business reason to do so. This choice is now paying off handsomely, with the rebirth of the pot still styles contributing significantly to the wider global renaissance of Irish whiskey.
Irish Whiskey to Present
It's easy to understand why these larger distilleries have created so much buzz in the wider whiskey world. In the 1990s, only Midleton, Bushmills, and Cooley produced Irish whiskey. Today, over 30 distilleries are creating Irish whiskey, which is growing rapidly.
Distilleries in Ireland are developing their own styles. West Cork Distillers' use of bog oak and even seaweed mixed with their casks has produced impressive results. Dingle's yearly Single Pot Still releases high command prices on the secondary auction market.
John Teeling is most famous for founding Cooley-Kilbeggan, which he sold to Beam-Suntory. However, before the sale, the company maintained plenty of mature stock, facilitating John's sons Jack and Stephen to start Teeling Whiskey. They started a distillery in the heart of Dublin and now produce single malt expressions that regularly win awards.
John Teeling has taken a leaf out of his own book and opened the Great Northern Distillery, where he makes a variety of whiskey styles. As a contract distiller, his whiskey options' versatility makes him stand out.
Controversy in a Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Although not directly related to pot-still Irish whiskey, finding mash bill records from historic distilleries have shown that these whiskeys would not meet the current legal definition of 'pot-still Irish whiskey.'
Rather than being discouraged, some distilleries like Killowen and Blackwater have recreated these historical mash bills. These distilleries combine unusual practices to make an extraordinary spirit that is due to reach maturity in the coming years. However, whether or not some people will change the EU technical file that defines a pot still style remains to be seen. Sometimes controversy can be a good thing!
At Cooley, finishing whiskey in various casks had been commonplace long before the distillery was founded. That is because it gives a distillery's whiskies a distinctive character. Some brands use this practice to help their whiskey stand out, and potential customers recognize its quality. There's no universal agreement that one method is more effective than the other, but once in a while, the results are extraordinary.
Glendalough's use of Japanese Mizunara oak to finish their 17-year-old single malt was a notable success. Many producers have taken advantage of the fact that Irish whiskey has more liberal regulations for maturing than other whiskey-producing nations.
Midleton is committed to innovation and is constantly experimenting with new techniques and ideas. The distillery moved to open a second ‘micro-distillery’ for experimental whiskeys called Method & Madness.
Bonders like JJ Corry and W.D. O’Connell has taken an adventurous approach to aging different liquors like malt whiskey or pot still whiskey. They carefully select from various casks, including American oak, virgin French oak, and casks that have previously housed a variety of liquors, including tequila and cognac.
And then there is Waterford Distillery. Waterford is committed to making yearly releases utilizing barley from specific Irish farms to showcase the distinctive flavor of the resulting whiskey field by field.