Irish Whiskey – Innovation and Tradition Going Hand In Hand
It’s no secret that there is a real buzz around Irish whiskey at the moment. International sales are booming, production is struggling to keep up and every month or two we seem to hear news of a new distillery being set up.
It is an extremely exciting time and we have been in the lucky position of witnessing this renaissance first hand. The Irish spirits industry is worlds apart from what it was when our doors at the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street first opened back in 2003. One of the driving forces behind the resurgence is a movement towards innovation, yet with one eye kept closely on the past. Irish whiskey is at a crossroads, with opportunity ahead but many lessons from a turbulent history to be kept in mind.
At times our sense of what Irish whiskey is has been warped and twisted by marketing spin. There was a period when we were told that all Irish whiskey is triple distilled, un-peated, delicate and smooth. However, that greatly undermined the diverse potential the spirit category has and the boundless possibilities for producing a plethora of different whiskey styles. Thankfully the picture now is far more diverse, with a massive selection of different styles and distilling techniques beginning to emerge.
One of the main innovators within Irish whiskey is the main player, Irish Distillers. As owners of the Jameson brand they could easily sit back and enjoy being the biggest exporter of Irish whiskey without having to seek improvements and research new methods.
Yet, to their credit, they are one of the main driving forces in diversifying and experimenting. Recent years have seen the fruits of their labour come to light. Innovation is at the forefront of their maturation process, conducting interesting cask experiments which have included most famously the Midleton Dair Ghaelach releases. These whiskeys were finished in Irish oak casks exclusively sourced from a single forest in Kilkenny. Other wood experiments have included the highly-rated Redbreast Lustau Edition and Jameson Caskmates, the latter of which was matured in beer barrels.
Not content with limiting their ventures to different types of barrel the Midleton Distillery are also looking at experimenting with different grain types. Old pot still recipes mention the use of oats and rye as well as barley. Those two grains will most likely feature in some highly unusual future releases as well as some entirely new recipes.
They are not the only ones to be looking beyond barley. Cooley and more notably the old Kilbeggan Distillery are sitting on some stocks of pot still whiskey made with rye and other grains. Again, oats make an appearance in their mash bills where ex-distiller Alex Chasko revived some old Locke family recipes from the 1800 and 1900s. Alex has since moved on to Teeling Whiskey where there are many innovations to come. More on that later.
Dingle have been the trailblazers of the Irish whiskey revival and were the first of the new breed of distillers to start making whiskey. Now they have come of age and finally have some whiskey ready to drink. Whilst the distillery is experimental with their ageing process, anyone who has visited their distillery on the wild rugged Dingle peninsula will agree that focus is devoted to creating unique craft spirit, applying the most hands-on, traditional approach to producing their outstanding small batch releases.
The huge popularity and rapid sell out of their single malt is testament to this. At just three years old it is easily one of the best young whiskeys we have tried.
Another way to improve the final product is to look at provenance of the raw materials. Barley is by far the most important of these and many of the newly formed distilleries are forming close relationships with local farmers. Waterford Distillery proudly proclaims that their raison d’être is provenance and that barley is king. An impressive operation both in scale and expertise, Waterford will not be releasing any whiskey until it is fully mature and worthy of their high standards. All their barley is sourced locally and so far it has all been used to make malt whiskey.
Equally impressive are the Echlinville Distillery in Co Down. Operating to similarly high standards, they have also taken it upon themselves to source locally and to malt their barley at a farm nearby. Hand malting is a labour intensive endeavour and we can already taste the difference in their own Echlinville Gin.
They have coined the term ‘trickle pot distillation’ to describe their production process, meaning they operate at an extremely slow rate. The aim of this process is to enable maximum reflux and generates greater contact action with copper stills to produce the finest quality pot still spirit. We have been lucky enough to try this new make and were overwhelmed by its balance – so smooth that it could almost be enjoyed without ever entering a barrel!
It will be another few years before we can taste the first whiskey release produced at Echlinville, but there is no doubt they are off to a fantastic start. In the mean time, we recommend their Dunville’s PX cask.
Back to the importance of barrels and there are some highly interesting new releases that are worthy of investigation. Teeling have done some great work in sourcing exotic and unusual barrels from the lesser spotted wine regions. Their most recent release is the Teeling Revival volume III which is finished in Pineau des Charentes casks from the South West of France. This is no gimmick and the fruity grape flavours from the barrels have complimented the light and delicate 14 year-old whiskey in the best way possible.
A challenge facing the industry is the availability and sourcing of interesting barrels for maturation. This rings particularly true in relation to fortified wine barrels, when you consider the ratio of demand for sherry matured whiskey compared to the demand for fortified wine. As importers of some of the finest fortified wines in the world, we are in a unique position to source superb quality barrels for our award winning Celtic Cask range. We now also produce a bottle your own Cill Airne Cask, which is currently available with either a Pedro Ximenez or Oloroso finish.
The whiskey has been finished in specially made quarter cask barrels which, being smaller, have a larger surface contact in proportion to the whiskey. The result is more flavour influence on the spirit making these some of the richest and complex tasting whiskeys in Ireland.
Walsh Whiskey at Royal Oak also have a particular advantage when it comes to sourcing interesting barrels.
With connections to Illva Saronno, the Carlow distillery have great access to a superb variety of international casks for ageing, which allow the team at Walsh Whiskey to push the boundaries of experimentation, particularly in relation to maturation.
Whilst whiskey from the distillery is not ready yet, we can already see such innovation in their latest release, Writer’s Tears Red Head aged in sherry oloroso butts. A nice mix of malted grains, tropical fruits and ginger spice and a contender for one of our favourite new releases in 2016.
There are other whiskeys which you could be forgiven being skeptical about that are also impressing whiskey drinkers. One of the stars of Whiskey Live Dublin 2016 was a new release called Prize Fighter.
This Irish-American collaboration has taken Irish whiskey and finished it off in American Rye whiskey barrels. Again, many might write this off as a gimmick but the result speaks for itself.
Irish Distiller’s latest series titled Method & Madness features some of the most innovative bottlings that the industry has ever seen, indicating that the Midleton Distillery is as committed as ever to being a key player in driving the industry forward.
The series consists of four very different, but equally ingenious malts – a single grain matured in ex-Bourbon barrels and finished for 12 months in toasted, virgin Spanish oak from Galicia; a single pot still matured in a combination of ex-oloroso Sherry and ex-Bourbon barrels, before being transferred to chestnut casks sourced from the Isére region in France; a Single Malt with French Limousin Oak, initially matured in ex-Bourbon barrels, imparting flavours of “malt and biscuit” and in a first for the category, has been part-finished in French Limousin oak for one year; and a fabulous single grain single cask, matured in an ex-Bourbon cask for 31 years.
Celtic Whiskey Shop will host a fabulous opportunity to try the single grain, single malt and single pot still from this collection, along with several more rare and interesting releases on Wednesday 15th March at 57 The Headline. This event will be held in aid of Mary’s Meals.
Full information on celticwhiskeyshop.com
Celtic Whiskey Shop & Wines on the Green on Dublin’ Dawson Street is a multi award winning retailer and a mecca for any whiskey, wine or spirits lover. The store stocks a superb variety of Irish whiskey including many rare and exclusive bottlings. Expert staff serve up free whiskey tastings all day every day, and are on hand to offer any assistance you may need to purchase your favourite tipple. The store hosts a variety of exciting whiskey tastings each month.
Celtic Whiskey Bar & Larder Killarney is home to one of Ireland’s most expansive whiskey ranges, stocking an enormous selection of Irish and international whiskey, creative cocktails, Irish craft beers & spirits. Irish Whiskey Experience hosts a range whiskey masterclasses in Killarney and Dublin.