All in the Mash

All in the Mash

Iorwerth Griffiths explores a particularly Irish style

Production | 04 Mar 2011 | Issue 94 | By Iorweth Griffiths

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Pot still whiskey is a style particular to Ireland. In fact it is currently unique to a single distillery, albeit one of the most complex plants in the entire industry: Midleton, County Cork, the home of Jameson.

The key to this style of whiskey is the mash bill. Unlike malt whiskey, pot still whiskey uses a proportion of unmalted barley in the mash together with malted barley. This gives it a unique flavour and came about due to a tax on malt in the late 18th century leading Irish distilleries to use other unmalted grains in their mash to reduce their tax burden.

As well as using unmalted barley, the Irish distilleries of the time used other grains. A small proportion of oats (around 10 to 15 per cent of the mash bill) were used by many including the old Midleton Distillery and Locke’s, Kilbeggan while the old Tullamore Distillery had a mashbill made up of malt, barley, wheat, oats and rye.

Traditional pot still whiskey is a very oily, robustly flavoured product. The distinctive characteristics come not only from the mash bill but also from the spirit cut which tends to be rather lengthy for economic reasons and contains a lot of heavy fusel oils.

Irish pot still whiskey was the dominant style of whiskey in the world, but history dealt a number of blows. This resulted in the remaining distillers in the Republic of Ireland joining forces rather than compete in a shrinking market. In the early 1970s production was concentrated in a new multi-purpose plant at Midleton. While famous distilleries such as Jameson and Powers in Dublin and the old Midleton Distillery were closed.

All Irish pot still whiskey is now made at Midleton but relatively little is available unblended with column still grain whiskey, that is, as pure pot still.

The reasons for this are part historic and part economic. Changing tastes led to lighter tasting blended Scotch becoming dominant therefore many of the Irish distillers prior to amalgamation had begun blending their fully flavoured pot still whisky with lighter grain whiskey. In economic terms, grain whiskey is far cheaper to produce than pot still, therefore blending saved money in straitened times. The result was a change in the flavour spectrum of Irish whiskey towards a lighter style. This is typified by the standard Jameson blend.

All of the pot still whiskey now produced at Midleton is triple distilled and made from unpeated malt, under the watchful eye of master distiller Barry Crockett. His father Max was the master distiller at the old Midleton Distillery and he grew up in a cottage on its grounds.

Why Irish Distillers continue to make this style of whiskey is explained by tradition and uniqueness, in Barry’s words: “Irish pot still whiskey has a defined flavour, aroma and character of its own, it is a specific style in the world of whiskey, it’s part of our tradition and what we do.”

Barry adds that oats have not been used for 30 years and pot still whiskey is now made with only malted and unmalted barley. The malt proportion tends to be in the region of 40 to 45 per cent and varies only in relation to the quality of the barley rather than for specific whiskeys. The unmalted barley gives pot still whiskey a “soft, spicy, apple type aroma and silky mouthfeel”.

The only difference in the mashing and fermentation stage from making a malt whisky is that the wash will have a higher original gravity entering the wash still.

Triple distillation at Midleton essentially involves the low wines being distilled a second time in the feints still with the heads and tails redistilled with the next batch of low wines. The strong feints from the second distillation are distilled in the spirit still with the heads and tails joining the next batch of strong feints.

Three styles of pot still whiskey are made at Midleton described by Barry as “light, medium and full-flavoured.” The differences between them are in the cuts taken during the different distillations. Light pot still will have narrower cut and emerges with a flavour profile “aimed towards delicate, estery, fruity and honeyed.” Medium pot still will have wider cuts and is “heavier, deeper, more fully balanced and has a ripe barley character”. The full-flavoured style is as close as it gets at Midleton to the historic heavy and robust style of pot still whiskey, Barry describes it as “deep, rich, full with cereal character”.

The main use of pot still whiskey today is to be blended with Irish Distillers’ grain whiskey. Those with a high pot still to grain ratio are Jameson 12 Years Old Special Reserve, Jameson 18 Years Old Limited Reserve, which has a high content of mature heavy pot still. As does the new Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, some of the pot still in this blend having been matured in port pipes; and Jameson Gold Reserve which is different to the others as it has around 10 per cent of the pot still matured in virgin American oak.

Only two brands of pure pot still whiskey are available and they are made with entirely different styles: Redbreast 12 Years Old and Green Spot. Redbreast is the “fullest reflection of Irish Pot Still Whiskey as traditionally understood” and is an excellent expression of Midleton’s style. It is matured in ex Sherry and Bourbon wood. Green Spot is younger, around eight years old and is a brand owned by venerable Dublin wine merchants Mitchell and Son. Green Spot is matured exclusively in ex-Bourbon wood and is a great opportunity to try younger pot still whiskey.

A few limited edition pure pot still whiskeys have been released, the most recent being the justly celebrated Redbreast 15 Years Old. However, the Jameson 15 Years Old released to celebrate the millennium is the closest expression stylistically to the historic heavy pot still and one worth seeking out.

Pure pot still whiskey can be a very robustly flavoured product. In the same way that single malts from Islay and rye from the US have developed dedicated followings due to their robustness, there is no doubt that pure pot still, made in a more traditional style, could also gain such a following.

Could Midleton provide such a whiskey in the future? According to Barry there are no immediate plans during the next few years, but stocks of the heavier style of pot still whiskey are being laid down, “so it wouldn’t surprise me” he adds enigmatically.

There may also be another pot still whiskey to savour as plans are afoot for a boutique distillery in Dingle in the south west of the island. The people behind the venture own the very successful Porterhouse Brewery and chain of pubs and they plan to make pot still whiskey.

But for the time being its future is certainly safe at Midleton with stocks of all three styles being laid down.

Pot still is style of whiskey unique to Ireland and, with the growth of Irish whiskey more generally, hopefully pure pot still will become more widely available and appreciated for being a distinct, flavoursome and excellent member of the wider whiskey family. Seek and enjoy!
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