Ireland Call: Single Pot Still?

Redbreast 15 Single Irish Pot Still WhiskeyGather around the fire, children, uncle Lucas will tell you now what happened in Ireland last week. We landed at Cork Airport. There were some leprechauns, rainbows, pots of gold and shamrocks. We all went to a dingy little pub, had 15 pints of stout each, somebody played a fiddle. We passed out. The end.

Errr, now that I think about it, I wasn’t supposed to employ casual racism on the blog anymore, right? Well, I better tell you a more PC version then…

I was in Ireland last week by the kind invite from Irish Distillers, the owner of Midleton Distillery. They flew me all the way from Edinburgh to tell me one thing and one thing only: pot still Irish whiskey is back, son.

Pot still Irish whiskey is an idea as old as, and the cheeky Irish would even claim older than, single malt Scotch whisky. The principles are the same. Take some barley, make beer with it, distill it and age in oak casks. There are also differences. While the Scots make their malt spirit from 100% malted barley, the Irish mix malted and unmalted grain in the mash (proportions vary but you can take 50-50 as a good rule of thumb). The Irish are also known for distilling their spirit three times, as opposed to the Scots who tend to do it twice – apologies for feeding you common knowledge but just want to be thorough for a change. What you probably don’t know, however, is that at Midleton they use some of the biggest stills you’ll ever see. Those things are absolutely huge and that, no doubt, affects the style of the spirit as well.

At Midleton Distillery Irish pot still spirit has been distilled for… well… for ever! But for decades now it has remained in the shadow, it has served a giant brand – Jameson – as a key component and while it retained a small group of devoted fans, not enough of it has found its way onto the shelves. Encouraged by the success of Jameson and equipped with resources it brought, Irish Distillers endeavoured to change that and to breathe fresh air into Irish pot still whiskey.

First thing they did was changing the ‘appellation’. If you have a bottle of Red Breast at home it probably says “Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey” or something similar. Well, from now on it will say “Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey”. Spot the difference. Pure has become single. There was much discussion going on in Ireland last week among the invited writers, jurnos, bloggers, distributors et al. about this cosmetic change. The official line is – ‘pure’ doesn’t work in the US. The conspiracy theory is – challenging single malt category, or even (nuts) – pretending to be single malt. Perhaps I’m going soft but I actually believe the company line on this one. Almost.

The category reinvented, we can move on to some new whiskeys. Hang on a second – whiskeys? Plural? Well, yes. If you read my blog from the previous visit to Midleton, last year, you have a good idea of just how many different spirit styles can be produced under one roof there. For technicalities, please refer to the original post, but if you’re not really interested, just think: various malted/unmalted barley ratios, three pot stills offering possibility to cut distillate in many ways, condensers with several spirit collection valves in different places… possibilities are endless and, let me tell you, at Midleton they use a fair chunk of this endlessness.

To demonstrate just how different Irish pot still whiskeys from Midleton can be, I was invited to one of the warehouses for a sampling from 3 completely different casks, each filled originally with a different style of pot still distillate.

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Cask 11921 – madeira drum
Filled on 31/08/1994
Type of spirit: MMP-94 (middleweight)

Nose: Soft. Brandy butter, dried orchard fruit. Slightly nutty with a whiff of sticky toffee pudding. Elegant but too quiet.

Palate: Buttery, creamy but also spicy with hints of pine nut and a salty tang. Warming, slightly spicy finish.

Overall: Shows lots of elegance and finesse. Lacks the punch.

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Cask 76145 – new oak (Alba)
Filled on 22/06/1992
Spirit type: LPM-92 (lightweight)

Nose: Toffee and vanilla cheesecake. Chemical and concentrated, very bourbony. A tad of superglue, pink candy.

Palate: Raisin compote, cedar wood, cinnamon. Burned vanilla on the finish.

Overall: Roar! Give me more! Like bourbon but not a bourbon for sure. Very cask-driven but absolutely excellent.

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Cask 892 – sherry butt (2nd refill)
Filled on 12/01/1995
Spirit type: MMP-4 (middleweight)

Nose: Big S. Treackle, Christmas pudding, banoffee pie. Matches, oxo cubes.

Palate: big meaty presence with sherry and sugar cane sweetness. Killer finish featuring quite a fruity explosion.

Overall: Big, meaty, sulphury dram. Not a fan of the style but hats off to how different it is from what we are used to…

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What a great exercise. The madira cask spirit was good and I can totally see it bottled. It just lack that extra ‘something’ for me. The new oak one was a eye-poppingly good. Big oak presence on a bed of fine, estery spirit. Huge dram, lots of sweet goodness. The sherry one? Wow, I’ve not had such a sulphury beast in a long time. Bit I liked it for what it was.

Three completely different drams. No official commentary provided, no ‘official point of view’ here. Guys at the distillery seemed to say: look, we can do it… if anyone at all can put this category where it belongs, it’s us! They certainly have the stock to do it, they obviously have the drive and the desire… but did they manage to pull it off? What is the final product like? What new pot still whiskeys can you buy?

Come back soon to find out.

Lucas

Comments

  1. Great story. Thanks for sharing. This blog is also well formed and really interesting. Keep up the good work.

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