Peter Mulryan looks at the increasingly rare art of triple distillation
The theory is simple. You put your wash into a pot still and gently turn up the heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so it’s the first to evaporate. This liquid is collected and the process happens all over again, then again. In other words it does exactly what is says on the tin; the wash is distilled three times, rather than twice. In Ireland that second still is called the feints still, in Scotland the intermediary still.What comes out the far end is a more alcoholic new make spirit, usually between 80 to 85% abv, as opposed to the 68 to 70% typical of double distillation. But if that’s all there is to it, then this article would end here. And clearly it doesn’t.Historically, this kind of distillation has been associated with Ireland and the Scottish Lowlands. Both, coincidentally, locations where the whisky industry suffered greatly during the first part of the 20th century.The Scottish Lowlands, with a softer landscape, typically produced a softer whisky than the Highlands or islands, and in the Glasgow area a lot of it was triple-distilled. Barnard visited 36 Lowland plants, but these days just three remain; Glenkinchie, the doughty Bladnoch and Auchentoshan, Scotland’s last remaining distillery to practise the ancient art of triple distillation.“I wouldn’t say we’re the last of a dying breed, more that our continued existence is a sign of our success,” says Ronnie Learmond, Distillery Manager at Auchentoshan. “Personally, I believe that the concentration of Victorian distilleries that triple-distilled in the Glasgow area is due to an Irish influence. The men would arrive in Glasgow, walk to somewhere like Auchentoshan and look for work.”Unfortunately, there is no way of checking this theory as all the distillery records were destroyed during the Second World War. “I don’t think it had anything to do with Hitler preferring a different dram, more to do with the fact that we are only half a mile from the Clyde!” Ronnie jokes.Across the narrow Irish Sea, no fewer than 20 of the 28 Irish distilleries visited by Barnard practised triple distillation, but unfortunately each and every one of these has since closed down. Today, the only operating distillery from Barnard’s time is Old Bushmills, and ironically, back then it practised double distillation.Dave Quinn is the current Master Distiller at Old Bushmills and a firm believer in the power of three.“I would like to tell you what the third distillation does,” he says. “It produces whiskey with a lighter, more fragrant character. You leave some of the higher alcohols and fusel oils behind and so reduce the heaviness.”But the Mecca of triple distillation has to be the Midleton complex in County Cork. This giant distillery is capable of producing 19 million litres of pure alcohol per year. All output is triple-distilled.Today, this distillery is home to Ireland’s biggest brands – Jameson, Powers, Paddy – as well as lesser-known ones such as the hugely impressive Midleton Very Rare and the epic Redbreast.In the wave of distillery closures that followed Irish independence in the 1920s, double-distilled Irish whiskey vanished off the face of the earth. The five remaining distilleries in the Irish Free State all triple-distilled their whiskey.In 1966, surviving distilleries combined forces to form Irish Distillers Limited (IDL) – united they would stand or fall. In a radical move characteristic of the 1960s, IDL decided to close the country’s existing Victorian distilleries, and start again from scratch, with a new state-of-the-art operation in County Cork.The new Midleton Distillery opened in 1975 and had to be capable of replicating the distillate of Jameson and Powers in Dublin, and the old Midleton plant; no small order. So there was never a question of changing the age-old Irish habit of triple distillation. In fact, this would be fundamental in the Irish whiskey renaissance.So what exactly is so special about whisk(e)y produced by that third pass through the copper?To Dave Quinn, this is what lies at the heart of what makes Bushmills’ output so unique.“The methods of distillation are very important to us here, we can selectively retain or remove the flavours we want for our whiskey. Triple distillation allows you to push up the flavour spectrum, giving a whiskey that is more fragrant, floral, sweet and spicy. These characters are allowed to shine through by reducing the heaviness from the fusel oils.”At the far end of the country, County Cork sits smack in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Unlike Antrim, it never snows here and palm trees wave in the damp winter wind. Like his father before him, Barry Crockett is the Midleton Master Distiller, and to him it’s pure science.“It’s simple. If you have two distillations you get a greater range of compounds retained,” he explains. “There’s a certain pungency from double-distilled whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just not what we do.”Ronnie Learmond agrees with his Irish counterpart, that triple distillation produces a purer sprit.“On our third pass we get hardly any feints across at all, maybe five minutes’ worth. This would compare with 10 or even 15 minutes’ worth if you double distil. This and the onion shape of our stills really make our whisky unique.’Indeed it does. Auchentoshan produces Scotland’s only unpeated, triple-distilled single malt, while if Midleton does produce a triple-distilled malt it is usually kept for blending purposes. Most of Midleton’s output is pot-still whiskey; and this includes unmalted barley in the mash bill.Ironically, both Irish and Lowland whisk(e)y are enjoying something of a revival. “For too long there was a stigma about the word ‘Lowland’. Like ‘low’ meant not so good, while ‘high’, as in Highland, was somehow superior. We’ve been sitting on this wee stick of dynamite for quite a while.”Matthew Mitchell, the enthusiastic Communications Manager for Auchentoshan, agrees.“The consumer is now being better educated about what we do and about triple distillation.”Selling the benefits of an extra distillation has been a central plank in IDL’s marketing strategy for some time, though only recently has ‘triple distilled’ appeared on the Jameson label. Their current campaign reflects the Irish attitude to life.“How we always find time to do the important things in life,” says Eily Kilgannon, International PR Manager. “The concept of triple distillation is now well-known through vodka ads in the United States. This really helps, as consumers now associate the idea of purity with what we do. So in our ‘Rush Hour’ campaign, we simply reflect that: how in Ireland we take longer to distil and mature our whiskey. So what’s the rush?”They promote it in Scotland, too.“In Scotland, being triple-distilled is an exceptionally good selling point”’ says Ronnie Learmond. ‘Everyone needs something to set themselves apart.”In a crowded and ever-more competitive market place it would seem everyone needs a ‘USP’ – unique selling point – and distilleries are not shy about finding something to crow about.Among other claims to fame you’ll find: the smallest (Edradour); the highest (Dalwhinnie); the tallest stills (Glenmorangie), the most westerly still in operation (Bruichladdich). There’s even the furthest north, which falls into two sub-categories: mainland (Old Pulteney) and just-plain-furthest-north (Highland Park). So, when history endows your marketing department with something truly unique like ‘the last distillery in Scotland that triple distils,’ it will come as no shock to see it become a major USP.At Auchentoshan, triple distillation has given birth to three points on the label and triangular water jugs. At Irish Distillers it’s part of what makes their whiskeys different. But to Eily Kilgannon, the Irish whiskey experience is all about what you get in your glass.“I recently had some American journalists in town. We lined up a bourbon, a Scotch and a Jameson; the difference was clear even on the nose. You seldom buy three different whiskeys and taste them side by side, but to do so is a revelation. Irish whiskey is just so approachable, which is why in every country in the world where we sell Jameson, sales are growing year on year.”The idea of approachability is also important at Auchentoshan.“People who say ‘I don’t drink whisky’ are usually converted when they try Auchentoshan,” says Matthew Mitchell.“People tend to equate Scotch with heavily-peated malts reeking of iodine. When people taste what we do they are really surprised. In particular, women like what we do. This is a very approachable dram, a gem to be discovered.”So what are you waiting for? Grab a glass and get converted.
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