You’d be forgiven if you thought that smokiness and Irish whiskey didn’t go together. After all, for the best part of 60 years that’s what we’ve been told. Brands like Jameson, Bushmills and Paddy have presented themselves as the smooth alternative to Scotch for generations – but was that always the case, and why are a few mavericks attempting to light the turf, inflaming a debate about what Irish whiskey is, and isn’t?
Peat. It’s not for everyone, but, let’s face it, most whisky drinkers are raised on the idea that there’s a natural progression towards the smoky stuff. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a rite of passage. Not in Ireland, where for years peated whiskey has been seen as something other, something foreign. This is a fallacy, a relatively recent rewriting of history to provide a marketing platform for Irish whiskey that is always triple distilled, always smooth and never peated – at a time when the distilleries closed or merged to survive the onslaught of global Scotch marketing.
If you think about it, considering how much peat, or turf, covers Ireland, it’s easy to imagine that this fuel source was used extensively for the drying of malted barley, imparting a fundamentally different taste profile to what we know today. It’s a romantic image – a land of rural distilleries making smoky whiskey. The truth is more nuanced.
Peated spirit depended on the site of the distillery, and the taste preferences of the locals, with a much greater likelihood of peated spirit, legal and illicit, coming from the north west of Ireland – the latter being the famed Inishowen poteen from Donegal, typically made from malted barley. Though small operations, their abundance was frankly ridiculous, with Aeneas Coffey (Acting Inspector General of Excise, before inventing the patent still) noting a time in 1807 when “there were… upwards of 800 illicit distillers in Ennishowen, and that 101 had been detected within the space of 36 hours.”
‘Inishowen’ was smuggled all over Ireland, with The Belfast Monthly noting in 1809, “where smokey whiskey is sold... we will pay three shillings more for it than for whiskey that has paid the excise duty” – to some the smokeless ‘Parliament whiskey’ just didn’t cut it.
It’s impossible to know how much Irish spirit was actually peated, but by the 1800s an extensive licensing programme had changed the landscape forever, favouring large city distilleries such as those in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. They needed efficiency and large volumes of grain and, critically, had easy access to coal from England. An Irish Revenue report lists that of all 33 legal distilleries in Ireland in 1821, only five use turf for fuel, and their combined still size is less than the smallest of the Dublin distilleries. While you can speculate that the hundreds of illicit distillers used peat, their output was comparatively small.
Eventually, both the scale of these seaport distillers, and the tightening of the gaugers noose around the “illicit adventurers”, with their smaller stills, and factors like temperance and famine against their enterprise, peat’s use in Ireland waned. While Bushmills and other licensed distilleries in the North continued for a time, by 1938 an advert for ‘Old Bushmills’ was proudly proclaiming its “‘peat-free’ flavour”. Coal had won and the march towards inoffensive smoothness had begun.
Irish whiskey was at a low ebb and it was decided that smooth was the thing, smokiness was for Scotch and the very character of the nation’s spirit softened. Then in 1973, with the merger of the last remaining distilleries into Irish Distillers Limited, the history of Irish whiskey became written by one hand, and peat was effectively scored out of the story.
In the 80s Irish whiskey was still in the doldrums. Only a lunatic would consider this market ripe for investment: in walked teetotal John Teeling. His Cooley Distillery, a former state-owned potato alcohol plant, was the first indie whiskey maker in Ireland in perhaps 100 years. It would take a contrarian to reintroduce a fully-peated Irish whiskey to the world, but he did it... by mistake.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Teeling told me, “I was only the executive chairman, who the hell tells me anything?”
It turned out that David Hynes, the managing director, and Brian Quinn, manager of Cooley’s Kilbeggan site, decided they would make peated malt for the Japanese market, for highballs.
“Four years later I discovered I had mature peated malt whiskey. Cooley hadn’t got as far as France, let alone Japan,” he said, with a trademark chuckle to himself.
To develop the product, he gathered a team of young marketing interns in a room and told them not to leave until they had a plan for what to do with the spirit. They designed the name, the bottle and the label and Connemara was launched in 1996 and has changed very little since.
Cooley remained the only independent distillery in Ireland for almost 30 years before it was sold to Beam in 2011, for $95 million. Connemara remains its top product.
Teeling is betting that good luck strikes twice, with his Great Northern Distillery. Not releasing products themselves but supplying whiskey to the many new brands on the market, and, despite admitting that he doesn’t know how anyone can drink it, has seen a huge demand for their peated spirit.
John Teeling’s success inspired a new generation of whiskey makers who learnt at the feet of the master. Literally, in the case of his two sons, Jack and Stephen, who both worked for Cooley before founding The Teeling Whiskey Company in 2015. Building on these experiences they recently launched Blackpitts, a triple-distilled, peated single malt, made in their Dublin distillery by another former Cooley man, Alex Chasko. It’s the first own-brand peated whiskey released in Ireland since Connemara.
A marrying of Bourbon and Sauternes casks, it’s the three times distillation that makes this really curious. Starting at 55ppm (phenol parts per million, the measure of smokiness) it arrives at just 15ppm after the third run, which still gives enough kick but brings out a ton of other flavours too. You’re not chewing a charred log, but it’s not a shy retiring drop either.
Blackpitts is the first of what appears to be a smoke-filled renaissance in Ireland. When you start speaking to distillers across the land, you find pockets of feverish peating all over, with interesting releases planned for the coming few years.
One of these nascent distillers is David Boyd-Armstrong. “There is something so thematic about peat – one side of the coin it can be like a fist to the face, the other, it’s the umami element that brings all the flavours together.”
His Rademon Estate Distillery has been very quietly laying down peated Irish whiskey for five years, making it some of the most mature in Ireland. It was a chance taste of the heavily peated Connemara expression ‘Turf Mór’ that started his personal journey into distilling and led to his devotion to create “a little bit of Islay in Ulster”.
Recognising their place in history, David mused, “We’re in the middle of the rebirth of Irish whiskey and it would be nice to bring back the things that we’ve lost.” They aim to release their first double-distilled Shortcross whiskey in 2021.
The challenge for distillers in Ireland is to source peated Irish-grown grain. Currently it mostly comes from Scotland, something Stephen Teeling hopes will change.
“The commercial availability isn’t there. If we can get it to a stage where it is, that’s another string to our bow.”
Meanwhile, some of the smaller distilleries have taken the spirit back in time completely. Killowen Distillery in the Mourne mountains of County Down is one of those. In their “maritime highland environment”, Ireland’s smallest distillery is laying down a peated pot still whiskey, a mix of malted and unmalted barley, with local oats that they smoke themselves.
“When you’re smoking your own grains they tend to be smoked in a less pristine environment, more inclined to get slight bacterial infections,” founder Brendan Carty told me. “Whenever you get a bacterial infection, those resulting esters in the fermentation are like a bitter or sour mash beer, and those esters end up in your final distillate making for a more interesting spirit, not just because of the flavour from the smoke, but a more complex fruitiness.”
Whether you are a fan of peated whiskey or not, it’s worth remembering Aeneas Coffey’s words in an 1818 reply to a Donegal Reverend, when discussing Inishowen vs legal whiskey.
“The inhabitants of Donegal and other smuggling districts greatly disliked the flavour of legal whiskey… but as proof that this is merely an acquired taste, I need only say that the inhabitants of Dublin, Cork etc, being in the habit of consuming legal whiskey only, have an equal dislike for what they call the smoky unpleasant flavour of illicit whiskey.”
So, can we now say that peated whiskey is Irish whiskey? Stephen Teeling sure thinks so.
“This universe is now much bigger, there is an audience who isn’t so set in their ways and are prepared to judge it on the merits of the liquid, rather than saying ‘this is what we have always done and this is how it should be’.”
It turns out that the Irish whiskey renaissance began a peated reawakening too – with new releases, and a raft of liquid soon to be available, it’s a wild time for the turf lover. As John Teeling said, “If the consumer doesn’t like it, they won’t buy it.”
I for one will be first in line.