By Evan Eckersley
On March 17th, 2017 we had a Saint Patrick’s Day Irish Whiskey Tasting here at the Kensington Wine Market. This year we focused on Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.
Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is a little bit different from Single Malt Whisky. Single Malt means two things: It comes from a single distillery and it is made from 100% malted barley. Single Pot still Irish Whiskey also means it comes from one distillery. If it does not come from one single distillery it can still carry the Pot Still Irish Whiskey designation.
Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey = Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey.
The name was changed due to an issue with US Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Commission taking umbrage with the use of the word ‘pure’ and how they feel it pertains to food and drink. This led to the name change.
This style originated in Ireland as a way to get around the taxman. In 1785 the British instituted a ‘malt tax’. Necessity being the mother of invention – this led the Irish to use less malted barley in distillation – instead combining it with unmalted barley. This created a spicier, thicker style of whiskey while also allowing distillers to skirt the law and avoid much of the heavy malt taxes.
The other main difference between Irish and Scotch Whisky that most people bring up is that Irish Whiskey is triple distilled while the Scots only double distill their whisky. This is not a hard and fast rule, though. There are some Irish distilleries that distill two times and a handful of Scottish distilleries that distill three times.
For many years Irish Whiskey was the most imbibed whiskey around the globe – however many factors lead to its decline and near decimation in the 20th Century.
In the early 1920s the two main importers of Irish both essentially ceased drinking the once popular drink for different reasons:
- In 1920 the United States enacted its nationwide prohibition on the sale of alcohol.
- In 1922 the Irish Free State came into being and soon after the Anglo-Irish Trade war began. Tariffs on most Irish goods entering Britain kept the English from buying Irish Whiskey.
- The Great Depression in 1929 of course also did not do anything to help Irish Whiskey exports and sales.
The invention of the Continuous Still or Column Still also led to the rise of Blended Scotch Whisky made using lighter and easier to produce at mass quantity grain whisky as the main component. Blended Scotch took Irish Whiskey’s spot as the barrel aged libation of choice after the United States ended prohibition. The most popular continuous still – the Coffey Still – was actually created and patented by Irishman Aeneas Coffey. His own country’s distilleries did not adopt this new technology, though. Many Irish Distilleries chose to stay with the tried and true pot still. Lighter whisky made in much larger volumes won the day (and the century).
All of this took its toll on Irish Distilleries and by the 1980s there were only two still in operation: The Bushmills Distillery in Antrim and the New Midleton Distillery in Cork. In 1987 the Cooley Distillery in Louth was established and the number of whiskey distilleries operating in Ireland increased to three.
Here is where we stand today: Irish Whiskey is booming now and there are now at least 16 Irish Distilleries currently operating and producing that will eventually become whiskey. A few years from now with other Distilleries planned or already being built – this number should jump to just about 30. This is quite a revival from the cataclysm that started almost a century ago but for the time being, we only see Irish Whiskey from the three aforementioned distilleries on our shelves.
We can currently only get Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey from one producer – as more distilleries come online and revive old traditions we will hopefully see more returning this uniquely Irish style to the heights it once achieved.
Here is what we tasted:
1 – Green Spot – 40% ABV – $90
Green Spot is produced at Midleton Distillery in County Cork – as is all Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey we tasted. It is 8 to 9 years old and is produced for Mitchell & Son Grocers of Dublin. Green Spot has been around since the 1920s and has been continually available since – though not always available here. Now a wine and spirits shop, Mitchell & Son still have the sole right to develop, market, and sell the Spot lineup though it is all produced by Irish Distillers and matured in their warehouses.
2 – Yellow Spot – 46% ABV – $90
Yellow Spot is the 12-year-old sibling of Green Spot. It is matured in three different types of casks: ex-Bourbon barrels, ex-Sherry butts and ex-Malaga casks Malaga is a type of fortified wine from Spain made with Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes. Yellow Spot was only recently re-introduced to the world in 2012. It had not been available since the 1950s.
3 – Powers Signature Release Single Pot Still – 46%ABV – $68
The Powers line of Irish Whiskey has historically been the top selling whiskey within Ireland itself. The Signature release is aged mostly in ex-bourbon barrels along with some first fill ex-Oloroso Sherry casks. Powers is another old Irish Whiskey brand – it was originally produced at John’s Lane Distillery in Dublin but is now made at Midleton.
4 – Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy – 46% ABV – $267
The Barry Crockett Legacy is aged in a combination of ex-Bourbon and a small amount of American Virgin oak casks. Only 2500 bottles released per year. This Midleton is named after Midleton master distiller Barry Crockett – who retired in 2013 after 47 years at the distillery.
5 – Jack Ryan 15yr ‘The Bourdega’ – 46% ABV – $160
This is a 15-year-old single malt produced at an undisclosed Irish Distillery. It is aged in ex-Bourbon casks and then finished in ex-Oloroso Sherry casks – hence the name ‘Bourdega’ (Sherry casks coming from a Bodega in Spain). From a small batch of 2500 bottles. The Jack Ryan Irish Whiskey line is produced for Ryans Beggars Bush Pub in Dublin. The Pub has been around for 200 years and owned by the Ryan family for over a century.
Originally produced at Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery which ceased operation in 1971. Redbreast – like all other Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey tasted tonight – is now produced at Midleton Distillery in County Cork.
6 – Redbreast 15yr – 46% ABV – $115
Aged in ex-Bourbon Casks and ex-Oloroso Sherry Casks and like the 21-year-old it is bottled at 46% ABV.
7 – Redbreast 21yr – 46% ABV – $220
This is the eldest sibling of the Redbreast line as well as the oldest Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey available in Canada at this time. It is matured in a combination of ex-Bourbon casks and first fill ex-Oloroso Sherry casks.
8 – Redbreast 12yr Cask Strength – 57.2% ABV Batch B1/16 – $100
This high strength version of the venerable 12-year-old Redbreast is aged in first fill ex-Oloroso Sherry casks before being batch-bottled at cask strength and non-chill-filtered. Currently, it is only about five dollars more than the regular 12-year-old, which is a curious choice by the producer and distributor, to say the least.
In total, we tasted eight bottles of Irish Whiskey. Seven of these were Single Pot Still with the Jack Ryan 15 year Single Malt being the odd man out. Here were the favourites as voted on by those that attended our tasting:
#3 – Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy – Making up for being the most expensive bottle of the night – this was soft but complex with wonderfully integrated wood spice notes.
#2 – Redbreast 12yr Cask Strength – Big and bold with wonderful spice notes – the Cask Strength is a massive step up from the already good 40% 12-year-old – and only five bucks more costly! The value of this bottle and the Power’s Signature Release are likely the reason why both sold well post-tasting
#1 – Redbreast 21yr - It almost isn’t fair to the rest of this solid lineup how good this is. This absolutely stunning whiskey reminds you that even the big producers can put out some amazing stuff. I had not tried The Redbreast 21-year-old bottle until the night of the tasting and now I completely understand all of the high scores and accolades it receives. They are entirely justified.
This was a fun tasting to do and it afforded me the opportunity to learn a little more about Irish Whiskey and the Single Pot Still style. I am sure we will do another Irish Whiskey next year if not before then but at this point, I have to wonder: can anything beat the Redbreast 21-year-old?
Thank you to those that attended our tasting and also a big thank you to Cured Delicatessen for the food to pair with the Whiskey!