In the midst of a revival of interest in Irish whiskey A Glass Apart celebrates the culinary nature of the pure drop. We talked ancient grains with author Fionnán O’Connor.
How did you become interested in whiskey?
The early history of Irish whiskey is in part the story of grain that was grown to be bread but mischievously turned into hooch on the side. I became immersed in the subject when I was studying in San Francisco. I got a job with Diageo as a brand ambassador for the Bushmills Single Malt line and started teaching whiskey classes at Bourbon and Branch, an old established cocktail bar in San Francisco. This gave me a wide exposure to a lot of whiskey I couldn’t afford on a student budget. I also persuaded the UC Berkeley Celtic Languages Department to allow me to teach a class on the history of whiskey. My background was in medieval literature and I was used to looking at historical sources so it was great to be able to pull that into a love of whiskey.
What’s so special about Irish pot still whiskey?
In the late 1800s Irish pot still whiskey was regarded as the premier whiskey on the planet, the favourite drink of London aristocrats and New York property tycoons alike. It’s the one style of whiskey that’s not made anywhere else in the world. The combination of raw barley and the pot still process produces a very rich, oily spirit and the alcohol comes overloaded with other flavour compounds such as fruity esters and spicy aldehydes. A mixture of malt and a small amount of young, un-malted ‘green’ barley is thrown in with the malt to create a rich texture that’s denser, creamier and more viscous than other whiskeys. The raw barley also gives it a kind of bristly spiciness that lies somewhere between the taste of ginger and fern Christmas tree. At its height there were about 25 distilleries making it across Ireland, but due to a number of historical factors the industry was decimated. Those distilleries that survived did so by making significantly lighter ‘blended’ whiskeys that could be made at twenty times the speed, so a lot of the old oily pot still whiskeys disappeared. It came very close to extinction as a style, but for a long time its big mouth filling texture and spiciness were considered the calling cards of fine Irish distilling.
What led you to write A Glass Apart?
Now that Irish distilling is picking up again as a business I wanted to ensure that its unique culinary heritage was similarly revived. Whiskey is essentially liquor made from grain and I was interested in the history of the liquid, its flavours and how they evolved depending on the different ‘mash bills’ or grain recipes that were used. The main Irish pot still mash bill was a mix of malt and raw barley. More raw barley gives more spice and texture, more malt means more depth and sweetness, and there were also other Irish mashes involving oats or wheat or portions of rye that simply don’t exist any more. Ireland is littered with the ruins of old single pot still distilleries, with their abandoned chimneys and in a few cases, the stills just sitting there.
So I was going out to these places going through the excise records trying to preserve the flavours of all these dead whiskeys by recording as much of the mash bill history as I could find. A lot of people in the Irish Whiskey Society came forward with old samples and now there are tasting notes for pretty much all the surviving examples and any of the dead ones that I could get my hands on. The book is really a love letter to the style, showing the whole reservoir of forgotten flavours that we can draw on in Irish distilling today.
What advice would you offer to somebody coming to this style of whiskey for the first time?
Single pot still whiskey is absolutely loaded with flavours and it wants you to physically remember that you have something in your mouth. It does demand a little something from you, but a well-made pot still will reward you for your time and energy. The big difference between Irish pot still and other whiskeys is its thick, oily texture, almost like a thick, creamy winter soup, so what I’d say is take enough to feel that texture, a small bit more than a sip, but don’t gulp it. Give it time and look for that feel in the mouth, that bigness in the whiskey. A neat little trick is to breathe while you’re drinking it, keeping your mouth slightly open, and that will pump oxygen through to bring out more of the raw barley spice.
Do you have a personal favourite?
My ‘go-to’ pub whiskey if I’m out is Powers John’s Lane. It’s a commemoration of what used to be considered the Dublin style of Irish pot still, a very earthy, tobaccoey, leathery style of heavy whiskey. It’s exactly what old Irish whiskey ought to taste like, delicious and very affordable. If price isn’t an issue I’d say Green Spot 12 Year Old Cask Strength. Instead of playing into the advertising slogans of Irish whiskey being soft and accessible, it focused on what made Irish pot still different. It’s very electric, spicy and resinous and it’s become a cult item amongst whiskey lovers. Unfortunately there weren’t that many made, it’s something outrageous like €850 now, and every time someone drinks a bottle there’s one less in the world. All we can hope is, with the emerging renaissance, whiskeys like that become the expectation rather than the exception once again.
A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey by Fionnán O’Connor, published by Images Publishing is available from all good bookstores as well as from the Celtic Whiskey Shop, Mitchell & Sons and behind the bar in places such as the Palace Bar, L Mulligan Grocer and the Dingle Whiskey Bar.
Words: Martina Murray
Photographs: Ove Grunnér