Whisky Squad #31 – Irish Whiskey #1

Today is St Patrick’s day, a fact I know due to a) it being the day after my mate Adam‘s birthday (happy birthday Mr A) and b) Diageo having died their lake green. Again. In celebration of this holiday that I have no particular personal attachment to I have decided to live the stereotype to the full and am having whiskey for breakfast (Bushmills Original) while writing up the most recent Whisky Squad meeting – the not particularly imaginatively named ‘Irish Whiskey #1’. The second part of March’s St Patrick’s tribute sessions was this week, Irish #2 – Cooley is Hot, with Cooley whiskey flowing upstairs at The Gunmakers, but as I was sensibly sat on my sofa less sensibly watching the fairly awful, but colour relevant, Green Lantern, this is your lot for Squad writeups for the month. Let the rejoicing commence.

Green Lake
Nice day for it…

So, Irish Whiskey. The session was led by genuine northern Irishman (despite the doubts that his accent seems to inspire in people – west country?) and, unfortunately for him, work colleague of mine, Mr Tim Forbes, veteran of the booze industry and lover of Irish whiskey. With a Cooley session on the cards within a couple of weeks Tim stuck with whiskies that he was fairly certain wouldn’t appear in that tasting. However, due to the nature of the Irish distilling industry that isn’t a particularly big choice, as there are only three distillers and four distilleries in the country. There were many more back in time and there are efforts to expand that number again in modern times, but the the industry contracted back in the first half of the 20th century and consolidation allowed the remaining companies to survive until the present day.

In the early 1900s the irish distilling industry was beset by a number of problems, which Tim provided a short list of:

  • Civil War
  • The introduction of bonded warehouses, adding costs to production and maturation of whiskey
  • Prohibition in the USA
  • A trade war with the UK
  • A rise in Blended Scotch Whisky, a lighter style that was more geared to the palate of the time than the heavier Irish whiskey

The irony of the last point is that blends relied on light grain whisky, produced in continuous ‘Coffey’ stills, named for their inventor – Irishman Aeneas Coffey, one time Inspector General of the Excise. He modified the design of Robert Stein’s column still, patented his new invention in 1831 and then shopped it around the Irish distillers. They didn’t want it, so he went to Scotland. The rest, as they say, is history.

The various Irish distillers contracted through merger, intermarriage and closure, eventually ending up with a pair of companies – the latest incarnations of which are Irish Distillers and Bushmills, the former in the south the latter in the north. Irish Distillers is now part of the Pernod Ricard empire and Bushmills Diageo, and in 1988 a new independent appeared – Cooley. They started a second site in 2007, reopening Locke’s distillery (originally founded in 1757 and one of the many sites that claim to be the oldest distillery in the UK, if not the world) and using it distill small amounts of spirit while keeping it as their visitor centre. However, in 2012 Beam Inc, owners of Jim Beam and other assorted brands, bought out Cooley bringing all (legal) Irish Whiskey production into the hands of the multinationals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although there are unsettling rumours about the gutting of Cooley’s range that have started alarm bells ringing.

However, ownership apart there is some very interesting whiskey coming out of Ireland. There has been some big investment by Pernod Ricard over the last few years which has paid off, with Jameson storming the USA and dragging the rest of the category with it. William Grant’s, owners of Glenfiddich and Balvenie, have also got in on the act, buying the Tullamore Dew brand from PR, although it is still made by the former owners under contract, and they are relaunching it around the world as I type. Lots of interest and, despite the small number of production sites, a big range of whiskey to try.

There are three distinct styles of whiskey currently being produced in Ireland. After maturation they’re often blended together, helping expand the range of whiskies and flavours available, but everything starts from the three. The first two are obvious if you know Scotch whiskies – single malt and single grain. Both are produced in the same fashion as their Scottish relatives and share characteristics with them. The third style is uniquely Irish – Single Pot Still.

The name is quite confusing, seeing as single malt has to be produced in pot stills by Scotch Whisky Association decree, but production is a mix of grain and malt distillation techniques. It’s a mixture of grains, using malted barley, unmalted barley and a variety of other grains, which is then all distilled in a pot still. By SWA definition this is a grain whisky, as the addition of any non-malted grain to the mash makes it such no matter what type of still is used to distill it, hence the new designation.

The genesis of Single Pot Still whiskey (once called Pure Pot Still, but rebranded due to issues of using the word ‘Pure’ on labels in the USA) comes in part from tax, as so many things in the whisky industry do. There was a tax levied on malt in the 1830s and in an effort to avoid paying so much the amount of malt in the mash was reduced – some was still required to kickstart fermentation, but over time the changed recipes became a distinct style within Irish whiskey.

These days the types of distillation are divided up amongst the distilleries, with Cooley doing malt and grain, Bushmills malt and Midleton, the Irish Distillers distillery, pot still and grain. In a similar fashion to the Scottish distillers they buy from each other to fill the gaps in their ranges and get the various styles and flavours of whisky they need to produce their vattings.

InishowenFirst of the evening was a whiskey that Tim described as ‘a smoky blend’. We were trying them all blind, as usual, but I had a good idea of the list, having discussed the various whiskies with Tim over the proceeding weeks at work. On the nose it had a rubbery smoke, with coffee, prickly raw grain and sweet, creamy porridge oats. To taste it was hammy, with cream, more porridge and sweet caramel, finishing with a puff of smoke and sweet grain. The label came off to show that it was Inishowen, a Cooley made Irish blended whiskey, made from single malt and grain spirit. It’s not a particularly well known brand, but it was rather tasty, combining the traditional creamy grain character of Irish whiskey with a touch of smoke.

Black BushThe next whiskey had a nose of gravel, tropical fruit (pineapple and unripe mango), linseed oil, green rhubarb and sour gummi strips. Note of the night goes to Pooja, who described it as being like ‘A well full of frogs, in India’. To taste it was sweet and creamy (those words might get a bit repetitive by the last dram) with oil and a touch of dried fruit. It finished with more raisins and a nice bit of well balanced wood. The paper was peeled back to show that it was Bushmill’s Black Bush, the distillery’s most famous blended whisky. It uses their own single malt whisky and is rounded out with grain whisky produced at Midleton.

The third whisky started of a bit shakily with a hint of the butyric on the nose – aka ‘smells like sick’. That burnt off quickly to be replaced by sour apples, rhubarb and custard sweets, and lychees. To taste it was like a malted milkshake, with raisins, stewed apple and a pleasant touch of citrus, finishing with porridge and sugared lemons. This was revealed to be Locke’s 8 Year old, a brand once produced at the distillery now known as Kilbeggan and now made by Cooley, the new distillery owner. This is a single malt whiskey, but Cooley also produce a blend under the same name, something that we suspected wouldn’t be allowed in Scotland. The SWAs reach isn’t quite all-powerful, yet.

The fourth whiskey had a bit more fruit to it, with its nose adding some blueberries to the typical cereal notes, as well as malty Shreddies, malt loaf, banana bread and some unripe green bananas. To taste it had a light creamy custard edge with raisins, rich fruit, sponge cake and a sweetness that nodded towards liqueurs. It finished spicily, with cinnamon cream and vanilla. This was the whiskey I’d been waiting for, as it’s my favourite Irish whiskey of the moment – Jameson Select Reserve Small Batch. Produced at Midleton, this was our first pot still whisky of the night, although it is blended with grain. This is about 75% single pot still, with lots of first fill bourbon and sherry casks in that proportion to give a much richer flavour than in the regular Jameson. Top stuff and one that I will be drinking to celebrate St Patrick’s this evening, if all goes to plan and I can grab a bottle.

Powers Johns LaneThe fifth whiskey was massive let down, not due to the dram itself but because none of us got to try it – it was corked. While we often hear of wine being corked it’s not so common to hear about it happening to whisk(e)y and there’s a reason for that – it doesn’t happen anywhere near as often. Unfortunately this penultimate whiskey, Tim’s crowning glory of the tasting, was tainted and was obviously wrong. It was meant to be Power’s Johns Lane, produced at Midleton and named for the old Johns Lane distillery were Powers used to be produced before all production was moved under one roof in 1974. It’s a single pot still whiskey and picked up Jim Murray’s Best Irish Whiskey award in the 2012 Whisky Bible – an impressive feat considering it was released around the time that Jim stopped taking entries for the book. Annoyingly, I’ve only tasted a couple of heavily oxidised samples that I really didn’t take to, but there’s a non-corked bottle on its way to Jason and Andy at the moment, so hopefully I’ll get a taste at a future Squad night.

Redbreast 12 CSI had a sneaking suspicion as to the identity of the last whiskey – on the nose it had popcorn, wine soaked wood, crunchy apples, green melon and cream, with a meaty middle. To taste it had cream, raisins, rice pudding, rich sweet wood, cinnamon and Chelsea Buns, finishing with sugared raisins and spiced malt loaf. It was, as expected, Redbreast 12 year old Cask Strength, one of the most eagerly awaited whiskies of the last year. It appeared at Whisky Live Paris last autumn and Tim managed to grab a few bottles, the remains of one of which ended up on my desk and became my go to Friday-evening-at-work dram. After months of waiting our delivery of it has finally arrived and should be appearing on the Whisky Exchange website next week. All that I’m waiting on now is a price, as we’re expecting it to be quite expensive…

Anyways, a top tasting and further evidence that we should prop Tim up in front of a crowd more often. There are three sessions in April for the Squad and two of them still have some places left – Whisky Cocktails with the folks from Monkey Shoulder and Indian whisky and food with Dishoom and Amrut. There’s also a second birthday bash, but that’s predictably sold out. Hopefully there will be cake…

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