If you have followed any of the topics for this column you know that I attempt to stay seasonal. What can I say? I’m a festive kind of guy. Since I am of Irish descent, I could not help but notice that St. Patrick’s Day is approaching. Although not noted for their production of wine, the Irish are well known for uisce beath (“water of life”), a pleasantterm for none other than whiskey.
To understand whiskey made in Ireland, one must first understand the essence of whiskey itself. Whiskey is produced by first converting the starch inside a grain (corn, wheat, barley or rye, most commonly) into a fermentable sugar. This can be done most often by the use of conversion enzymes (synthesized or naturally occurring) or by hydrolysis of starches through boiling. The resulting sugary liquid is called wort.
The wort is then fermented by yeast to produce around 6 to 10 percent ethyl alcohol, called the wash. It is during this stage that all the flavor compounds, congeners, are created. Variations during the fermentation process have a profound impact on the final spirit. The acidity level during fermentation, the type of yeast, the speed and length of fermentation are all variables that a producer can manipulate to create a unique style of spirit.
The next step in the creation of whiskey is distillation. Alcohol and flavor compounds are not created during this process but rather concentrated. The wash is 6 to 10 percent alcohol by volume, thus 90 to 94 percent water. Distillation will separate most of this water from the ethyl alcohol and flavor compounds resulting in a higher alcohol spirit.
Distillation is performed in either column stills or pot stills. Although there are many variances and complexities with these apparatus, there is a simple difference between these two methods. Column stills are more efficient, easier to run, produce a higher alcohol percentage and a lighter more neutral spirit. Pot stills are a batch process, not as efficient (and more expensive) to run, and produce a lower alcohol, more flavorsome and harsher spirit. The pot still based spirits require 2-4 distillations to reach adequate separation and alcohol levels.
This high alcohol spirit is reduced with the addition of demineralized water and, in the case of Irish whiskey, spends a minimum of three years in the barrel maturing. The spirit is then further reduced to around 40 percent alcohol by volume for bottling.
Irish Whisky is mostly a blended whiskey, meaning the end product is a result of blending pot stilled whiskey and column stilled whiskey. The pot stilled whiskies mainly use unpeated barley (usually 20-60 percent of the mashbill) as a base while the column based whiskies use wheat, maize and some barley. The popular misconception is that a blended whiskey is somehow a lower quality product. Granted, it may have lower production costs, but can be extremely flavorful and have a sweeter and less harsh perception on the palate.
Although Ireland distilleries were almost extinct in the 1970s, with only two operational in the entire country at that time, the past 20 years have seen a worldwide resurging interest in everything whiskey. There are currently nine distilleries in all of Ireland, but Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley are the big three when it comes to international importance.
New Midelton Distillery owned by Irish Distillers (a Pernod Ricard company) produces both grain and pot stilled whiskies on site and includes such brands as Midelton, Paddy, Powers and the famous Jameson (with more than 1 million bottles sold in the USA last year). A unique aspect of this distillery is their single pot still whiskies. These are made by purely pot stilled whiskies (no column stilled whiskey), and until recently, there were only two in production: Green Spot and Red Breast. In 2011, two additional brands were added to the single pot still family: Powers John's Lane 12yr and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy.
The Bushmills Distillery (now owned by Diagio) boasts a long history beginning in 1608 with King James I granting Sir Thomas Phillips, the governor and landholder in County Antrim, a license to distill. Throughout history they have stayed true to their original recipes, producing their whiskies from only malted barley and only in pot stills. Since they produce blended whiskies, they gain their column stilled whiskey for blending from Midelton. So when you drink the famous Blackbush blend, you are drinking a combination of pot stilled malted barley based whiskey produced at Bushmills and wheat, maize and barley based column stilled whiskey from Midelton.
Cooley Distillery (owned by Beam Inc.) is the youngest of the big three, starting production in 1987. Although youthful in appearance, their operations include Kilbeggan Distilling Co., which has been distilling Irish whiskey on the banks of the River Brosna since 1757. Cooley has a variety of products and brands including Tyrconnell (a single malt whiskey), Greenore (a single grain whiskey made with corn alone), Kilbeggan (a blended whiskey) and Connemara (a double distilled peated single malt whiskey).
You can see that it is difficult to pigeonhole Irish whiskey into one flavor profile. Each of these distilleries has their own character that remains evident in their products. Whether you are in the mood for a silky smooth blend or a characterful pot stilled treat there is an Irish whiskey for you. I invite you to try them ‘neat’ or in your favorite whiskey cocktail. There isn’t a better time to sample “the juice of the barley” than St. Patrick’s Day.
Slàinte mhòr agad!