In an extended version of his feature in the October issue of Unfiltered, Fionnán O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey examines the past and future of Ireland’s much misunderstood national spirit.

Reading Time: 14 minutes
Johns Lane still lies abandoned
Johns Lane still lies abandoned (photo:Ove Grunnér)

“In no long time after the general employment of the patent still, a spirit perfectly silent, a simple rectified spirit, could be produced at much less than the cost of Whisky; and this was speedily used to adulterate the Whisky of the Dublin houses, on its way from the maker to the consumer… such spirit would no more be Whisky than it would be brandy or rum… it was a mere basis, a foundation, plastic to the hand of the compounder, and capable of being converted into sham Whisky, or sham brandy, or sham rum, as well into honest doctors’ stuff or into good varnish.”

So declared the outraged representatives of Dublin’s old “distilling district” of Smithfield and the Liberties in an 1878 polemic railing against the rise of the column still and the blended whiskies it made possible. To anyone familiar with the sweet and mellow Irish virtues peddled in today’s Jameson and Tullamore Dew commercials, Truths About Whisky is a slightly disorienting read. It was written by four distillers who regarded themselves as the besieged stewards of Ireland’s liquid heritage and who regarded blended whiskey of any kind as a prostitution of that same inheritance. (Two of them, coincidentally, were members of the Jameson family…) It’s an extreme position. There’s no allowance made for a well made blend or a delicate grain and there’s coincidentally no mention whatsoever of the ‘triple distilled for smoothness’ selling points of today’s leading Irish brands. Instead, these men write with fanatical zeal about the ‘volatile oils’ and ‘fragrant ethers’ of an Irish pot still distillate and the absence of those congeners in the ‘fraudulent and nefarious’ ‘silent spirits’ of its fractional alternative. As far as these men were concerned, grain whiskey wasn’t whiskey at all and a blended whiskey was a whiskey, adulterated.

Whether we agree with them or not, distillers like James Power had every reason to despise the blend. When blended scotch first started dripping onto international tongues in the latter half of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was one of the most highly regarded drinks in the record-keeping world. International London merchants sold an average of three Irish cases to every case of Scotch and the almost complete obliteration of France’s Cognac vineyards by the “Devastator” Phylloxera in the 1870s had only stocked more cabinets full of “Dublin sipping whiskey.” Rural distilleries such as Bandon, Comber, Monasterevan, Nun’s Island, and Coleraine found their whiskeys patronised by parliament members and New York property tycoons alike while the full-bodied drams of old Dublin legends such as Power’s, Roe’s, and Marrowbone Lane had earned a reputation as the best brown liquor that money could buy. So great was the demand that, as the SMWS’ own Charles MacLean has noted in his wonderful history of Scotch whisky, at its zenith in the 1860s, imported Irish whiskey was actually outselling scotch whisky in Scotland itself![1]

At the heart of Dublin distilling’s halcyon days lay the uniquely ‘mixed’ mash bill of traditional Irish “Pure Pot Still” whiskey. Although it often included small portions of wheat and oats, this definitively Irish style was mainly defined by the inclusion, in the mash, of raw unmalted barley along with the malt. Neither a blend nor a single malt, the result was a spirit with the same cereal depth of its otherwise identical single malt sister but with a bizarrely spicy— almost liqouricey, almost gingery— bristle from the raw barley and a noticeably thicker and more lathery texture. (Any readers who have ever had a Redbreast will recognise the calling cards…) Having originally become popular in Ireland as a means of dodging the malt tax, this peculiar and technically inefficient mash bill had subsequently become the hallmark of Irish distilling as a trade. Long after the tax was repealed, the recipe remained. The ratio of malted to unmalted barley varied from distillery to distillery and that textural diversity was an intimate part of the lifeblood of Irish whiskey itself. Far removed from the super smooth promises marketed today, these Irish Victorians had a reputation for full-bodied spice, hefty fragrance, and sheer physical density.

Today, “single pot still” whiskey is a fairly scarce animal but those that are left still crackle with the prickling gingers, taut liqourice, spry ferns, earthy tobacco leaves and lathery oils of their under-advertised heritage. Aged in contact with a good sherry barrel, the unmalted spice slowly warps into something between gingerbread, figs, fern Christmas trees, medjool dates and Christmas pudding.

When the English journalist Alfred Barnard made his famous tour of “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” in the 1880s, he wrote with almost evangelical fervour about the “fat and creamy” pot still drams, “pronounced in the ancient aromas of Irish Whisky, so dear to the hearts of connoisseurs.” Of the twenty-eight distilleries that Barnard visited, only two were devoted to what we now call single malt whiskey. [2] The rest were simply too busy making the most beloved tipple in the British Empire. After a luncheon with James and Thomas Power, Barnard declared one of their expressions to be the finest whiskey, Irish or Scottish, “that we had hitherto tasted.”

For many blenders gasping for a market share, Irish whiskey was an irresistible brand. As less morally preoccupied Irish merchants began blending down the spirits of the old pot still houses while happily keeping the distillery names, the Dublin distillers complained that “…thousands of gallons of silent spirit were sent from Glasgow or from Liverpool to Dublin or to Belfast; and, having been mixed in bond with other spirit like itself, from the same or from other sources, and perhaps with a little say 10 per cent, of the genuine coarse Whisky, the compound was reshipped immediately from the Irish port, with a Belfast or Dublin Custom-House permit, as Dublin or Irish whisky, was sold under this name in England, and was sent from England to all other parts of the world.”

As the Irish pot still houses lobbied the courts for a legal definition of whisky that excluded all but themselves and the ‘pure malts’ of their Scottish counterparts, the column still continued to creep across urban Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Ireland itself as the commercial force of the big blenders steadily began to outcompete them, out produce them, out market them, and to make their full-flavoured tipples commercially irrelevant. In such a historical light, the hatred expressed in Truths about Whisky starts to make quite a lot of sense.

The old Kilbeggan distillery
The old Kilbeggan distillery (photo:Ove Grunnér)

By 1909, the cracks in the pot still were starting to show. Earlier that year, a royal commission declared whisky to be the grain distilled product of either a pot or a column still and large Scottish firms such as DCL were given the green light to expand their industry at the full capacities of their capital and equipment. In Ireland, column stills in Limerick and Dundalk were busily dumping cheap grain whiskey onto the open market while the old Irish pot distillers found themselves increasingly isolated at home and abroad. “The market for blended whiskies,” the commission had declared, “is greater than that for individual whiskies; so much so, that it would probably be safe to say that the majority of Englishmen who drink whisky seldom drink anything but a blend. We are bound, therefore, to take into consideration the fact that any undue interference with the practice would not only destroy a flourishing industry, but would also prejudicially affect large numbers of the public.”

Crack by crack, the Irish pot still simply broke. While the Glasgow blenders continued to expand, the Irish War of Independence ran straight through the opening years of America’s “noble experiment.” As Ireland plummeted into a subsequent civil war, discreet embargo on the one hand and prohibition on the other left the Irish distillers with very few people to sell to.

As Irish whiskey had previously retailed in New York as a luxury, it became a clear target for forgery as Al Capone and company began selling counterfeit “Irish whiskeys” of a very differently oiled and bristling character. Browned with anything from cola to battery acid, these rotgut spirits were produced as quickly as the mob could sell them. By the time prohibition was repealed, Irish whiskey’s reputation was either fading with a dying generation or degrading into a byword among its successors. To make matters worse, the fledgling Irish Free State entered a trade war with Britain just as DCL began its infamous ‘buy and close’ slash and burn policy across Northern Ireland.

As blended scotch took its first steps into the global success that it enjoys to this day, over three quarters of Ireland’s distilleries bit the dust in quick succession and Irish “pure pot still” almost vanished entirely. At a 1930 board meeting (after closing seven Irish distilleries in the space of a few decades,) DCL capo William Ross simply minuted: “Ireland is an irrelevance.”

From the perspective of industrial history, Irish whiskey had lost and Scotch whisky had won. But the real story is a little more fluid and this isn’t really a story of nations at all. It’s a story of fluids. Before being shown the blueprint of their commercial future by convincing men like Alex Walker, many of Scotland’s old malt distilleries had been firmly allied with their traditional Irish counterparts and some, such as Glenlivet, retained a staunchly pro-pot still perspective to the very last days of the commission. Most, however, were eventually persuaded to a position of cooperation. Although, as Walker had promised, these small distilleries reaped the rewards of the blenders’ success, diversity and depth bottomed out of Scottish whisky altogether as its industry began to blossom overseas. Only a few months before Ross’ terse elegy for Irish distilling, the Scottish whisky writer Aeneas MacDonald lamented the almost complete disappearance of Scotland’s unblended malts. “The notion that we can possibly develop a palate for whisky is guaranteed to produce a smile of derision in any company except that of a few Scottish lairds, farmers, gamekeepers, and bailies, relics of a vanished age of gold when the vintages of the north had their students and lovers.”[3]

The Scotch whisky business might have been booming, but it came with a collective commercial amnesia. Exported on a scale unimaginable to earlier generations, Scotch whisky’s industrial success had come with the quiet disappearance of its more textured, less reproducibly consistent, culinary heritage. Except, it hadn’t disappeared at all. Available or not, the malt was all still there. Whereas Irish pot still’s hostility to blending as an enterprise had written the death sentence of the drink itself, Scotland’s malt distillers were kept healthily employed by the interests of the expanding blenders. Walker might rule the world, but Cardhu would be given an unbreakable lifeline. Today, the commercial success of blended scotch still writes the cheque book for many small malt distilleries and, although DCL (in their present avatar as Diageo) may have been the victors of this fable, the likes of Lagavulin certainly weren’t the losers.

But lets talk about the losers. By the centenary of Alfred Barnard’s visit, Irish whiskey was a sarcastic joke on its own rather tragic traditionalism. In 1987, the island was littered with the abandoned stills, stone walls and malt chimneys of its long silent distilleries and there were only two Irish pot still whiskeys left in existence. One of them was only sold by a specialist wine shop in Dublin and the other was in the process of being discontinued. Old bottles of “pure pot still” whiskey sat on bar shelves here and there across the country gathering dust and some of it even lay forgotten in private cellars. In their desperation to remind the world that Irish whiskey even existed, the marketing men at Ireland’s sole remaining whiskey company had been busy for years telling anyone who would listen that Ireland made a soft, unpeated, blended, triple-distilled-for-smoothness alternative to scotch with all the intimidating bits left out. It was a lie. Mercifully, it was a lie that sold. On the far side of a century’s worth of industry-crippling blows and a fair amount of bungled government intervention, the surviving pot distillers Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distillers had merged into a single company (and later into the single Midleton distillery) and embraced the blend in a final bid to stay afloat. With a cannibalised market at home and an ever-dwindling interest abroad, the options were stark: Unite or disintegrate; blend or bust. Old pot still classics such as Jameson and Power’s, named after the very distillers who most despised the column still, became ironically synonymous with ‘light Irish’ blends.

As the less inviting heritage of mixed mashes, bulbous wide-necked pot stills, gingery crackles and viscous oils was swept into the closet, the company ad men devised some clearer selling points for the reimagined personality of Irish whiskey: triple distilled and free from harsh intimidating smoke. The line was simple and direct like the drink they promised. Neither of these claims, by the way, are true.

Although triple distillation was widespread in Victorian Ireland, this had far more to do with increasing the inefficient alcohol yields and decreasing the impenetrable oils of a spirit that, even after its third distillation, was still fundamentally heavier than a double distilled malt whiskey. That being said, plenty of rural distilleries such as Monasterevan had been happily making “fat” double-distilled Irish pot still at the time of Barnard’s visit. But it was the survivors who wrote history and they wrote it at a time when they weren’t so sure that they’d survive much longer. Irish whiskey in the 80s had hit creative rock bottom. In Scottish terms, it would be as if the regional obliteration of the old Campbeltown distilleries had occurred on a national scale, with the diverse tapestry of malt whisky bleached and reimagined in the likeness of a Dewar’s on the rocks. Miserable, isn’t it.

Speaking of Scotland, let’s look back at those disappearing malts. In the 1980s, after decades of stuffy dust-gathering neglect, Scottish malts had begun to breathe. With the successful marketing of ‘singles’ like Glenfiddich and Macallan, the industry had taken a renewed interest in its unblended produce and, with slowly expanding availability, there came a similarly expanding desire for the assertive flavours of the newly categorised “single malt.” Financially secure in the success of its blends, Scotch whisky slowly uncovered a new and unexpected future for its unsung malts. Across the world, the cult of malt had begun to spread through friends, critics, and, of course, clubs. With the discovery, by a group of malt lovers, that unfiltered Glenfarclas from the cask retained flavourful esters chilled out in commercial bottlings, the SMWS was established in direct reflection of this same emerging culture of independent connoisseurship.

Of course, that was all happening in Scotland. As the single malt was being discovered by the world, Irish pot still was quietly passing out of public memory at home. With the brief discontinuation of Redbreast, the entire (and legally unspecified) category of Irish pot still was reduced to the infamously scarce “Green Spot,” only sold by Mitchell & Son Wine Merchants. When the new and independent Cooley distillery flared up its stills in the late 1980s, the style was such a fringe consideration that the new independents didn’t even attempt to make it and even labelled some of their early malts as “pure pot still single malts” as they, of course, were technically made in a pot still. To give Cooley their dues, however, they were undoubtedly the catalyst for the return of craft and diversity into Irish distilling and, even though they’ve now joined the ranks of the internationals, throughout the nineties they made those same large players work harder and make better whiskey for the sake of their competition. By the end of the millennium, Irish whiskey finally started turning round.

Whatever the validity of its slogans, slippery-smooth Jameson sells extremely well and, in the punch line of Irish whiskey’s same sarcastic joke, the commercial success of its begrudgingly adopted blends has finally brought its industry and even its single pot stills back from the grave. In peculiar reflection of a certain Scottish organisation, in 2009 a small group of obsessives founded The Irish Whiskey Society at the back of Bowe’s pub in Dublin. Although still a tiny fraction of the size of the SMWS, the IWS have grown tremendously since that day and now select bottlings, invest in casks, host tastings, go on fieldtrips, and keep as independently aloof from industry influence as possible. If you’re ever in Dublin, just give us a shout.

From the perspective of the industry itself, Irish whiskey is currently the fastest growing spirits category in the world and new distilleries have recently been popping up across the country like rabbits while the old players, backed by their new commercial confidence, have finally begun celebrating their single pot still birthright with mouthwatering releases such as Redbreast Cask Strength and the almost chewably textured Power’s Johns Lane. Shortly before he retired from the still house, I sat down for a talk with Midleton master distiller Barry Crockett (the man behind both Jameson and Redbreast.) “Fifty years ago, nobody knew what a single malt was,” Barry pointed out.

As we sat there talking about the drink that he kept steadily alive when there was no money in the job, I asked him if he thought that, twenty years from now, we might look back from an age of global single pot still appreciation to the early 2010s as the time when single pot still first started to crawl back to life. With the expanding stocks of the Midleton site and the ever-growing list of new Irish distilleries eager to make it, would single pot still one day resume its old place as something like the sister of the single malt?

His response was modest and non-committal, but he was certainly smiling… And yet, as promising as the renewed interest and creative still work of its Midleton stewards may be, the true future for single pot still as a category possibly lies in the hands of a new class of upstart distillers looking to challenge those same Midleton classics with a range of carefully constructed craft single pot stills. These distillers range from traditional revivalists to rule-breaking experimentalists and they’ve plans afloat to reintroduce alternative grains such as oats and rye, creative mash bill ratios, various peating levels, and, of course, double distilling back where they belong in the Irish canon.The Engine, Johns Lane Distillery

There are over fourteen new Irish distilleries either currently distilling their first whiskeys or in some stage of planning for their first drops of the hard stuff. From John McDougal’s tiny batch-a-day artisanal Dingle distillery (which already has both malt and Irish pot still stocks maturing) to the as yet un-built Nephin distillery, which aims to use locally cut peat with creative cuts and phenol levels to smoke its spices, these new distillers all see a very bright future for the more flavourful Irish and it’s worth mentioning that there’s plenty of single malt and experimentally blended Irish whiskey coming on stream these days right along with the pot still. Although some of them are more tight lipped than others about their plans, two of the most publically exciting distilleries are located just down the road from each other in the heart of Dublin’s old Liberties distilling quarter.

When talking about her trip to the abandoned Liberties pot stills[4] with legendary master distiller Dr. Jim Swan, the Dublin Whiskey Company’s Marie Byrne told me “Standing there with Jim, looking at them— it was the closest I’ve come in a long while to seeing a grown man cry in front of me.” On the far side of a long career of world-class malts ranging from Kilchoman to Kavalan, Dr. Swan has tremendous plans for his first Irish whiskey. When I asked him what drew him, as a malt distiller, to Irish distilling, he replied, “That unmalted barley. That spice. That’s what I want to explore.” From the texture to the bristle, the Dublin Whiskey Company are currently looking to produce a young and crackling spice-forward spirit that plays up, rather than smoothens out, the edgier personality quirks of the national drink. “What will separate your single pot still from the others out there?” I asked casually. “Oh. We’ll win all the prizes. That’s what’s going to separate us.”

Those prizes, if won, will have been admirably fought for. As Midleton continue to release success story after success story from their well-aged stables, whiskey businessman Jack Teeling’s maverick distiller Alex Chasko will be firing up his stills only a few doors down from Dr. Swan at the Teeling Whiskey Distillery. Previously the innovation manager for the Kilbeggan micro-distillery, Alex is an inspiringly creative distiller who has already produced some double-distilled oat-tinted Irish pot still (currently aging in a cask earmarked for the Irish Whiskey Society) matured peated Connemara single malt in casks partially constructed from peat-petrified bog oak, and helped reintroduce rye into the Irish mash bill.

Although the Teeling Whiskey Company currently vat, re-cask, and blend stocks of malt and blended whiskey from Ireland’s existing distilleries, their own distillery is currently under construction. When it’s built, they too will be gunning for single pot still. In a recent publicity video, shot in front of those same abandoned Liberties pot stills lamented by their neighbours, Alex perhaps inadvertently summarises not only his own plans but the current zeitgeist in contemporary Irish distilling: “You can take that past— that common history that all Dublin whiskey would have, and try and write the future in a new and interesting way. That’s what’s really exciting to me about setting up a new distillery here in Dublin— we’ve got all this great history to draw on and there’s nobody out there doing it at the moment! You talk about a kid in a candy shop. In a way, we’re kids in a candy factory— we can make whatever kind of sweets we want!”

[1] Charles MacLean, Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History (Edinburgh, 2003) p.112 [2] Specifically, the Glen distillery in Cork and the Coleraine distillery in Ulster. Bushmills would switch to malts shortly after Barnard visited and Bandon made both styles, labelling them separately. [3] Aeneas MacDonald, Whisky, (Edinburgh, 1930) p.14 [4] Specifically, the old Powers pot stills of the John’s Lane distillery. Now the National College of Art and Design.