- On March 13, 2018
The Irish weren’t the first to distill, but they were likely the first to make whiskey. Pot still distillation was introduced to Ireland around 1000 C.E. At the time, the practice of distillation was utilized for perfume or medicine, with the native wines as the base. In Ireland, the local strong beer was the distilling base to make the first whiskey. That particular base was made from a combination of malted and unmalted native barley grain, setting the stage for the future of traditional Irish whiskey. Scotland, on the other hand, known for their single malts, is made from 100% malted barley.
By 1500, distillation was widespread in Ireland. Producers utilized double and triple distillation systems for a cleaner, softer, more palatable spirit. In 1725, a tax on malt led producers to use a larger portion of unmalted barley which has become a defining element of Irish Whiskey. During this time, Irish whiskey, with nearly 2000 pot still in operation, became the gold standard. It was admired worldwide with most exported to USA. In 1830, Irishman Aeneas Coffey invented the column still, also known as the patent still, Coffey still, or continuous still, and revolutionized the spirit industry worldwide. The invention allowed for mass distillation to run 24 hours a day, without the need tediously clean the stills between small batches.
Many whiskies that were pure pot still became blends, and combined with the events of the 20th century, Irish whiskey became an afterthought. For a time, two pot still whiskeys survived, from the only 3 distilleries on the island. Today, there is a resurgence, with 16 distilleries in operation and 14 more in the works, and the pot still whiskey is coming back with them.
There are 4 categories of Irish Whiskey, all of which must be made in Ireland and aged 3 years. Triple distillation is a very common practice to the island but not law.
- Pot Still Irish Whiskey is defined by:
95% barley- minimum 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley
Distilled in pot stills
This process is labor intensive and increases cost of the final product
- Malt Whiskey
100% malted barley
Distilled in pot stills
- Single Grain Whiskey
Unmalted cereal grains and up to 30% malted barley
Distilled in column stills
- Blended Whiskey
Blend of 2 more whiskey styles
For a time, only 2 distilleries were in operation in Ireland: the new Midleton Distillery and Bushmills Distillery. The Old Midleton Distillery, on the Southeast of the Island, was originally established in the early 17th Century. In 1966, the heads of Powers, Jameson, and Cork Distillers Co, owners of the old Midleton Distillery, merged to form the Irish Distillers Group. The heads closed their existing distilleries and consolidated production at a new facility built next to the old Midleton Distillery, now the “Jameson Experience” vistors center. The new Midleton is one of the most modern distilleries in the world, with one of the largest annual distilling capacities in the world, and 3 of the largest pot stills in production at 16,500 gallons each.
This year the distillery invested to double pot stills to 6, with good reason. The distillery produces some of the most well known names in whiskey: Jameson, Powers, Paddy’s, Redbreast, Midleton Very Rare, and the Green and Yellow Spot whiskies. They also produce grain whiskey for William and Grant’s Tullamore Dew, which opened their own distillery in 2014 but do not yet have a column still.
Redbreast and Green Spot are the only 2 single pot still whiskies produced almost continuously since 1900. Historically, merchants who got into the alcohol business had an excess of barrels from importing wine, sherry, and port.
Those merchants, or bonders, would purchase spirit from the local distilleries, blend, and age the spirit into whiskey at a bonded warehouse. By 1912, one such merchant house, named Gilbey’s, had a popular whiskey named Redbreast JJ Liqueur Whiskey 12 Year Old Whiskey. The spirit was sourced from the local Jameson Distillery in Dublin, and was given the name Redbreast by Gilbey’s then chairman who was an avid birdwatcher. Unfortunately, that whiskey ceased production in 1985 since it was sourced from the newly merged Irish Distillers and produced at the new Midleton Distillery. The label was sold to Irish Distillers in ‘86, and reintroduced in 1991 aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks.
Green Spot has a similar history. The merchants, Mitchell and Sons of Dublin, originally purchased distillate from Jameson’s Dublin distillery, like Redbreast, starting in 1887. They aged the spirit in a combination of light fino sherry casks and darker oloroso casks separately for 5 years, then blended and aged 5 more years in neutral oak casks. The whiskey was originally marketed as “Pat Whiskey” with the labels carrying the logo of a man on a green background, eventually becoming Jameson 10 Year Old Green Seal, then simply “Green Spot.” While other “spot” whiskies were produced, the green was the most
popular and remained in production. The 12 year, Yellow Spot, was reintroduced in 2012 after ceasing production in 1950’s. After the Jameson Distillery closed in 1971, production moved to the New Midleton distillery and the whiskey was slightly altered. Today, it is a non- age-stated blend of 7-10 year old single pot whiskey, aged in new and refilled bourbon and sherry casks. It was only available at the distillery and select retailers in Ireland until 2014 when it was launched in the USA.
On the North side of the island is Bushmills. In 1608, Sir Thomas Phillips founded Bushmills, named after the city, with a royal license to distill whiskey by King James I, making Bushmills one of the earliest, if not the first, official Irish Distilleries. It wasn’t until 1784 for a formal distillery to be built, only to burn down in 1885.
Since then, Bushmills is the longest continuously running distillery in Ireland. It’s proximity to Scotland may influence their specialized production of malt whiskey instead of Irish style pot still. The flagship white label original blended whiskey is 30%-40% Bushmills malt whiskey aged 6-7 years, the rest is lighter grain whiskey from Midleton, aged 4-5 years in used bourbon barrel. Some of the whiskey is aged in sherry at some point, but they are not too keen on information.
New to the scene is West Cork, founded in 2003 in the South of the island by two brothers and their close childhood friend. They do only pot still whiskey, distilled 3 times, with house malted barley, the only distillery in Ireland to do so. They make a 10 year single malt with 100% malted barley, aged in ex-bourbon casks.
Try all the whiskies with Aaron this Thursday,March 15th from 5-8pm!
Redbreast 12 year
West Cork 10 Year
Bushmills White Label