The giant copper gourds lined up on the warehouse floor of the Teeling distillery in Dublin resemble a row of Aladdin’s Lamps in a madcap 1,001 Nights-styled laboratory. But instead of housing genies, these machines are brewing up an even more capricious spirit: Irish whiskey.
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Uisce beatha, from which the word “whiskey” evolved, meaning “water of life” in Irish, has been distilled in Ireland since the 6th century. By the 18th century, Irish whiskey had become the biggest-selling spirit in the world. Then came 200 years of decline brought on by religious conservatism within Ireland and the Irish War of Independence that ended trade with the UK.
Prohibition in America in the 1920s finally brought whiskey to its knees. By the 1960s, only a few distilleries remained. But now Irish whiskey is experiencing a renaissance, and is coming out from the shadow of its more famous offspring, Scottish whisky, and its increasingly popular Japanese variety.
Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirit in the world, expanding by a whopping 20 per cent a year.
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“Drinkers today are looking for genuine products, with a sense of history and tradition, and that are special and created in small batches,” says Alex Chasko, master distiller at Teeling. “These more informed customers like to go on their own journey and experience something unique that matches their values.”
The distillery, set up by brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling, started producing whiskey last May, and the attached visitor centre opened early June. The newly distilled spirit takes anything from three to 30 years to age, so the whiskies now being sold under the brand are blended from stocks that the Teeling family – which has a history in whiskey stretching back to 1782, when Walter Teeling set up a distillery in Dublin – have been collecting for decades.
For new whiskey, they triple distil one batch, equalling approximately 1,000 bottles, from 3 tonnes of barley every five to seven days in the copper pot stills. They mature their whiskey in oak casks previously used to age a variety of liquors, mainly bourbon, but also
rum, white burgundy, sherry and port.
The casks are charred on the inside. This layer of active carbon reduces the fieriness of the spirit; allows the flavours in the wood such as vanilla, spice, and woody and sweet flavours to suffuse the spirit; and allows flavours already inherent in the whiskey to combine with the flavours in the wood to create new flavour compounds,
known as esters.
The appreciation for the light, subtle tastes of Irish whiskey is also reaching Asia. Emmanuel Dron, director of The Auld Alliance at the Rendezvous Grand Hotel here, says that the thirst for whisky – of the Scotch and Japanese varieties – and whiskey – the different spelling denoting that it’s Irish – is booming.
“Whisky drinking has grown a lot in Singapore for the last 10 years. The main interest is in Scotch, of course, but for the last two years there has been huge interest in Japanese whisky, too. Irish whiskey is a very new trend. People are starting to realise that some Irish whiskies are absolutely outstanding, elegant and fruity,” he says.
Irish, Scottish and Japanese whiskies differ in taste as well as, sometimes, in ingredients and production methods.
“Irish is all about the elegance, and pure red fruits, with a light texture and silky mouthfeel,” says Dron. “Scottish single malts are more full-bodied and present a rainbow of aromas and tastes, from floral to fruity, and woody to smoky. The Japanese are influenced by the Scottish style but have a unique approach to maturation: They use a lot of new wood and invest in high-quality sherry casks. It creates their own style.”
While Scotch whisky is usually distilled twice, Irish whiskey is often triple distilled.
The very traditional type of Irish whiskey, pot still whiskey, also differs from Scotch whisky in ingredients: Pot still Irish whiskey is made from both malted and unmalted barley, while Scotch designated by the term “single malt” uses only malted barley.
Fresh barley was first added to the mash by Irish distillers in the 1800s to avoid the heavy taxes the government levied on malt at the time. The fresh barley lent a unique taste and texture, an effect with which Irish whiskey has now largely become synonymous.
“Pot still whiskey has a much more velvety feel around the tongue, and it goes down smooth and subtle and comes back really nicely – it’s a bit more rounded and long-lasting,” says Keith McDonnell, managing director of the Irish Whiskey Museum, which opened more than a year ago
in Dublin and has already received 60,000 visitors from around the world.
The special characteristics of Irish whiskey are something that those in the whiskey industry in Ireland are working hard to protect. In 1966, the two surviving distilleries in Dublin, Jameson and Power, and the sole existing distillery in Cork, Cork Distillery Company, consolidated in an attempt to reverse the decline in whiskey sales, calling themselves the Irish Distillers Group.
In 1972, Bushmills in Northern Ireland joined the group. Today, this group, now owned by Pernod Ricard (Bushmills has been bought by rival British drinks company Diageo), still work to maintain standards of Irish whiskey.
“Irish whiskey is a small industry; the Irish Distillers help and advise new distillers, even though they are competitors, to keep the quality high. We are a small island and one bad whiskey maker could ruin the whole market,” says McDonnell.
There are more than 20 new distilleries in the planning phase across Ireland. Scotland is responsible for some 99 million cases of whisky exported annually, while Ireland produces only 6 million, but projections say this will increase to 12 million by 2018. And with consumers, including a growing number in Asia, thirsty for more, the disparity is sure to keep diminishing.
Irish whiskey aficionados are calling for both the old, established names and the new craft distillers.
“In July (last year), we bottled two great casks of old Irish whiskies specially for The Auld Alliance, a 1988 27-year-old and a 1991 24-year-old. They are some of our bestsellers. We also have a few very rare bottles, such as Redbreast bottled in the 1960s and 1970s, and some Midleton from the original distillery. The oldest Irish whiskey by the glass is a very rare Tullamore Dew 1951 from the original distillery which closed in 1954,” says Dron.
“Over the last year, a few casks of Irish whiskey by independent bottlers have also been a huge hit with classic Scotch connoisseurs. Those casks were outstanding – the best value on the market.”
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The Irish Four
Irish whiskey has been granted Geographical Indication status, joining the ranks of champagne and port as protected names. There are four varieties of
01 Pot Still
Regarded as the traditional Irish whiskey. A mix of malted and unmalted barley mash is distilled in a pot still, often thrice. The unmalted barley imparts a distinctive spicy flavour to the whiskey and leaves a distinct creamy mouthfeel.
Made from 100 per cent malted barley, this is distilled in a pot still and has a distinctive smooth, velvety,
full and oily texture with a malty and sweet taste.
03 Grain Irish
Produced from malted barley and unmalted grains of other varieties, often maize, wheat or barley. It is distilled in a column still. This whiskey is usually, but not always, considered of a lower grade and is used in blends.
A combination of the aforementioned three types, and it must comply with the rules for them all: It must be produced on the island of Ireland, and be aged for at least three years
in a wooden cask.