I took advantage of a quiet moment in the schedule and took a quick wander around the briefly tourist-free interior of the Old Midleton distillery, a place which never fails to summon up a mix of sadness, pleasure and awe. The sheer scale of the endeavour is thrilling even now, its vast rooms and high ceilings, a statement in stone of the confidence of the Irish distilling industry in the 19th century. Yet, the canpit is cold, the old washbacks have gone, the stills, these huge-belied behemoths of burnished copper, lie silent. I rubbed the surface of the pair of spirit stills looking up at their strange flat tops and snaking swan necks and, not for the first time in this room, thought “what if?”
The story of the decline of Irish whiskey has been well documented, but often at the expense of an appreciation of its glory days. Yes, DCL’s Willie Ross minuted that it was now “an irrelevance” after he had closed down the last of the distilleries which could have rivalled Scotch, but we tend to overlook another comment from the same man years earlier who, when asked why Irish whiskey was so popular, commented that it was because it was “more consistent” that Scotch. Ross’s motivation in other words came from a realisation that his rivals in Ireland had cracked the issue of making a whiskey which the consumer wanted to drink. That whiskey was Single Pot Still.
Irish whiskey’s fortunes and reputation was built on the back of a triple-distilled, unsmoked whiskey made from unmalted and malted barley. That’s what was rolling out of John Jameson’s Bow Street distillery, or Sir John Powers’ stills at John’s Lane, or the Murphy’s plant here at Midleton. It was different to Scotch: it had a fruity, oily juiciness, a richness of character which had both spice and softness, grip and seductive charm. It spoke of confidence and assuredness, a generous spirit, a style which surely did “bear a grudge against the decanter” as that consumer of Green Spot, Samuel Beckett wrote.
Yet, when Irish whiskey’s fortunes declined it was this style which bore the brunt. It survived in vestigial form in some, at the core of Power’s Gold Label, within Jameson, or in its full expression in hard-to-find brands like Redbreast and Green Spot.
Single Pot Still had its followers whose love was like that surrounding a cult musician. Importantly, it had guardians: the Mitchell family of Dublin who maintained their Green Spot brand and whiskey men at Irish Distillers like Barry Walsh and successor Billy Leighton, Dave Quinn and the old master Barry Crockett.
Single Pot Still fell from fashion in the 1960s when Irish distillers were struggling to survive. They had to find a more commercially acceptable style of whiskey. It has a parallel with the story of rye in American whiskey: a flavour that was too bold, too flavour packed to suit a changing palate. You fished where the fishes were. Enter ‘new’ Jameson.
The next day, I’m sitting with fellow hacks in the front parlour of Old Midleton’s distillers cottage (where Barry Crockett was born) as Dave Quinn reveals a new look to Green Spot, refreshes our memories of the glories of Redbreast and then whips off two black velvet bags covering two new Single Pot Stills: Power’s John’s Lane and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy.
The time is right for the return of Single Pot Still. Big flavour is back. The wheel has turned. The fruity oils of the John’s Lane showed that this was the Power’s character at its max: all currants and rose petals, morello cherry, mango coriander seed and new drumskins; while the elegant, restrained Midleton Legacy more quietly introduced lime and tobacco, honey, bergamot, and toasted wood and cardamon, with the spirit relaxing and gently gripping on the tongue.
It’s the start of a programme which could see new ‘Spots’ appearing, certainly a new Redbreast and which will, apparently, continue for the next 20 years.
The copper still has been polished and the genie has emerged. Single Pot Still is back.