The Irish question

The Irish question

In part one of a three part series, Dave Broom looks at the changing face of Irish whiskey.

Production | 18 Jan 2008 | Issue 69 | By Dave Broom

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It used to be so simple. Irish whiskey, so we were told, was an unpeated, tripledistilled spirit. During the years, however, these certainties have been challenged. Today, Ireland has three distillers. All make Irish whiskey, yet they all do it differently. Blends, triple-distilled single malt, double-distilled malt, heavily peated malt and what for years was called “Irish whiskey”. It leads one to wonder, what is Irish whiskey?“We can tell you what traditional Irish pot still whiskey is,” say David Quinn and Barry Crockett, two of Irish Distillers (IDL’s) four masters of whiskey. Quinn is master of whiskey science, Crockett is master distiller.They pour five glasses of Jameson and we start tasting.If the standard Jameson is all fragrant fresh fruits and spices, the 12 Years Old has added layers of sultana and honey. The palate is juicier, but there’s still that tingling finish though now it’s changed from cumin to allspice. There’s less dried fruit here, more coconut and vanilla. The 18 Years Old is more in line with the 12 Years Old but with extra weight. Linseed oil, raisin, honey and a chewy texture which crisps beautifully on the finish. Then there’s the new boy, Rarest Vintage, a blend of an aged grain and a selection of pot still whiskeys, one of which has been matured in ex-Port casks. It’s deep, sweet and exotic, softly flowing with a sloe berry and, yes, spicy finish. “We define traditional Irish pot still whiskey as being apple and spice,” says Barry Crockett. “and it’s coming from mash of malted and unmalted barley. The minimum malt we use is 30 per cent, the average is between 40 – 60 per cent.” “It’s worth comparing it to a single malt,” adds David Quinn. “That has a dry edge, whereas traditional pot still has a mouthcoating texture.” We’re talking in the old Midleton distillery, a vast site which no matter how many times you visit always seems out of place in rural Cork. You’d expect that any distillery built here would be small scale and cute, in keeping with the candy-painted shops.Instead, old Midleton is solid and thickwalled with a huge creaking water and enormous pots. New Midleton, through the fence and up the road, is the epitome of hightech distilling. Both speak of whiskeymaking on an industrial scale. They also speak of the stylistic triumph of traditional Irish pot still whiskey.As in Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Irish whiskey was divided into two camps: small scale rural whiskeymaking versus large scale urban distilling.“There was an economic boom in the late 18th century,” says Barry Crockett, looking up at the row of single storey distillery cottages where he was born. “This came at a time when there was a liberalisation of trade between Ireland and England and a rewriting of excise laws.” The result was that wealthy merchants saw commercial opportunities in brewing and distilling in the major cities. This necessitated building vast distilleries in Dublin, Cork, and here in Midleton where the Murphy’s who made a fortune in tea bought a former woollen mill/barracks and turned it into a distillery.It was the size of these distilleries which then prompted the use of unmalted barely.“They needed to maximise their return,” says Crockett. “Unmalted barley didn’t attract the Malt Tax, which helped to reduce their fixed costs. It all arose out of the industrialisation of the process.” So, while Scottish urban distillers took advantage of advances in industrialisation by installing Coffey stills (an Irish invention) and made grain whiskey, their equivalents in Ireland stuck with pot stills (albeit vast ones) and changed the mashbill. The result was that the latter, perhaps unwittingly, created a new style flavour of whiskey; one which by the end of the 19th century was simply known as Irish pot still – and which was regarded the equal, if not the superior, to Scotch blends. (This isn’t to say there were no Coffey stills in Ireland. Midleton had one until 1880.) The reason for this popularity was that juicy, tongue-coating spicy nature of Irish pot still. Mixing malted and unmalted barley didn’t just save money, it had an impact on flavour.“The more malt you use the greater the spirit will change,” explains Barry Crockett.“If we ran identical distillations for an allmalt and our standard 40:60 malted:unmalted mashbill there would be a significant difference in flavour. “The presence of unmalted is a real and distinguishing feature in traditional pot still.” Production appears to start much the same as making an all-malt distillate, milling, mashing (at lower temperature than in Scotland to aid conversion) and fermentation wort is then fermented for a minimum of 60 hours.Look more closely and it’s not quite as simple. The ratio of malted to unmalted barley will vary depending on the style of whiskey being made. Midelton after all is a single distillery, making all of IDL’s whiskeys, plus a number of other brands, such as Tullamore Dew. The IDL major brands, Jameson and Powers, for example, will be a blend of a number of different styles of pot still whiskeys (plus grain).“Because we’re isolated we have to make a range of styles to support the portfolio,” says David Quinn. “That means we had to be innovative enough to make a range of different pot still whiskies all of which are matured in their own right in their own casks. We have the capability of making four pot still styles and three types of grain, all of which are used to varying degrees.” The New Midleton stillhouse is set up to maximise these possibilities. One wall houses the three column set ups, the other side has four pot stills: two wash, one feints and one spirit. All are the same size, but the filling charge will vary depending on the style of whiskey being made (it’s the old vapour/copper conversation thing at work again). “We’re currently making four main styles of traditional pot still,” says Barry Crockett blithely. “One light, two medium and one heavy.” Not only will mash bills and fill levels be different, but the strength of the distillate going into the middle [feints] still has a significant part to play in flavour creation. For light pot still it will be higher in strength allowing the creation of more fragrant flavours. The reverse will be the case when making a heavy pot still style. This split between low (heavy spirit) and high (light) strength then will be repeated in the feints still. Different cut points can then be imposed in the spirit still to create the desired final flavours.Though Crockett talks of four types of pot still distillates, it soon becomes apparent that there are many more. After all, one of Midleton’s features is that the distillate streams can be diverted from pot to column, or vice versa. For example, one style involves a column spirit being added to the distillate from the feints still to boost its strength and further alter its flavour. “I suppose it might be closer to six,” he says having explained this, though one look at the receiving tanks suggests that there may be more. Most Scottish distilleries have three. Midleton has 21. When you factor in the grain component, triple-distilled in three different column setups and using a mix of mash bills, the complexity of the operation becomes clearer.The final element in the creation of this Irish style lies in the wood. IDL has been quiet enough on distillation techniques, on wood management it has been virtually silent, yet this is as far-sighted a wood policy as any in the world whisky industry.Brendan Monks is the company’s longserving master of wood. “We had a serious look at wood in 1979 and we weren’t satisfied so a serious replacement policy from then on,” he explains. “Now we’re laying down 4,000 new European oak sherry buts a year, each costing E700. IDL pioneered the ‘bespoke cask’ approach which has subsequently been adopted by many Scottish distillers.“When the sherry industry declined, the shipping containers dried up and because Jameson and sherry is so closely associated we had to go and replenish, hence the bespoke cask,” says Monks.These days all the casks are coopered and seasoned to IDL’s specification. Monks also insists that the casks are shipped in the winter months and filled immediately so there is no fear of contamination, or a sulphury note appearing in the whiskies.“There’s two levels of sherry,” he says. “If you want to buy at the bottom end then you take the consequences.” Historical and economic factors forced IDL to shift production to a single site. Once there however it has been the skills of distillers, blenders and wood masters which has ensured that this one distillery can make whiskeys as different as Paddy, Power’s, Jameson and Redbreast.The masters, are not fazed by the complexities involved in this. “You either do it right or you don’t do it at all,” says Brendan Monks and reaches for his glass.
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