The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Irish Single Pot-Still Whiskey
This most traditional of whiskies evolved over centuries and is fortunately still available.
The War of the Spanish Succession. The War of the Quadruple Alliance. The War of Jenkins’ Ear. The War of the Austrian Succession. The Jacobite Rebellion. The Seven Years’ War (A.K.A. the French and Indian War). The American War of Independence. The French Revolutionary Wars.
British monarchs fought a hell of a lot of wars throughout the 1700s. In the process, Britain gained various islands in the Caribbean, saved its North American colonies, lost its North American colonies, and engineered a permanent split between Scotch and Irish whiskies—in the process giving us that uniquely delightful spirit known, since 2012, as “Irish single pot still whiskey.” (Before that, it was “pure pot still,” and before that—way before that—it was “old still,” which we’ll get to later.)
Just to be clear, the whiskey in question is the uniquely Irish style that is double- or (usually) triple-distilled in copper pot stills from a mix of malted and unmalted barley (neither can drop below 30 percent of the total mix of grains) and up to 5 percent other grains, if desired, and barrel-aged for at least three years. The large whack of unmalted barley gives the whiskey a subtle funk, often described as “musky” or “mossy,” that sets it apart it from a 100 percent malt whiskey and makes it interesting, much like a tiny hit of peat-smoke does to a Scotch malt whiskey.
(And yeah—I’m going to spell it “whiskey” here, no matter where the stuff comes from, because that whole “Irish with the ‘e’ and Scotch without” thing is twentieth-century bullshit and a waste of time and brainpower.)
From some time in the 1400s, when the art of distilling from grain first reached Scotland and Ireland, until the end of the 1600s, they were making basically the same thing on both sides of the Irish Sea: barley malt, fermented, run once or twice through a copper pot-still, infused with raisins and dates if you had them (or oats if you didn’t), flavored with spices—nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, saffron, whatever—and finally sweetened with sugar or honey.
The Irish stuff, usquebaugh (“water of life”), was more refined and had a better reputation; the Scottish version—uisce beatha—was a little rougher and more rugged. If the spirit had oats and honey rather than raisins and cane sugar, it was probably Scottish, and from the wild Highlands. In either case, the spirit was only aged after purchase, for as long as the customer kept it around before drinking it.
Between 1700 and 1750, the grain-distiller’s craft really developed, in large part due to the notorious gin craze of the 1720s and 1730s, when gin tore through the poorer parts of London like liquid crack, turning beer-drinkers into gin junkies. Before that, it was the upper classes who drank most of the spirits in Britain, in the form of French brandy, Caribbean rum, or Indonesian arrack, all consumed in the form of Punch. Even after the most virulent parts of the epidemic had burned themselves out, gin was still firmly ensconced as the drink of the urban working class.
That meant a huge increase in demand for malt spirit, the gin of the day being nothing more than that redistilled with juniper berries (for the good stuff) or turpentine (rather less good). Distillers in England and the rapidly industrializing Scottish Lowlands began turning out malt spirit in massive quantities. Taste was not the object: while it was a pot-still spirit, since that’s the only kind of still they had, it wasn’t an artisanal one or a tasty one and it needed to be “rectified”—redistilled and flavored—before consumption.
Nonetheless, along the way these pioneering industrial distillers learned some important lessons about making a clean spirit, particularly how to cut it cleanly to avoid incorporating the fiery, poisonous heads and the oily, pungent tails, and how to avoid the grain particles in the wash scorching on the bottom of the still, which until then had all too often left the spirit tasting burnt and disagreeable. The spirit they made might not have been good, but it wasn’t bad, either.
Some of this distilling knowhow spread from the big industrial distillers to many of the smaller distillers scattered around the Scottish and Irish countryside, improving the general run of whiskey. By the 1730s, more and more of the spirit was being sold for local consumption in Scotland and Ireland without spices or sweetening. This alcohol was of a considerably higher quality, richer and more flavorful, than the stuff meant for rectification.
But here’s where those wars come in. They were starting to drag on and on, and the king was broke. The crown had been taxing spirits production and sales for decades, but those regulations were inconsistent and poorly enforced, and the tax wasn’t generating a lot of money. Beginning in the 1740s that changed, as parliament passed a series of ever-tighter Excise Acts. The booze business was where the money was, and the crown aimed to extract as much from it as possible.
Distillers in England adapted themselves to this new reality and consolidated production of grain spirit into a few very large distilleries, which were able to make money by making a least-common-denominator, commodity grain spirit at a volume high enough that economies of scale yielded them a handsome profit.
In Scotland and Ireland, however, the people actually drank grain spirits and expected them to have some character. The new regulations made it very difficult to earn a living by making such a product. What resulted was a decades-long game of cat and mouse between the (mostly small-scale) artisanal distillers and the “gaugers”; the British version of the “revenooers” of Appalachia.
When the gaugers found that distillers were making more spirits than they declared and paid taxes on, they checked the declared amount against how much wash (the raw, beer-like liquid that was distilled) they made and how much of the low wines (the relatively low-proof results of the first distillation) were used.
When the distillers set up their operations way out in the country, where they could bring in outside wash away from the gaugers supervision, a new law said distilleries could only be operated within two miles of a market town. When distillers ran their stills at night or on weekends, their hours were restricted.
None of this worked the way the government intended. In 1779, it tried putting a tax on the stills indexed to their internal capacity, extrapolated into how much spirit that capacity could produce in a year. Some distillers got around that by making the stills immensely wide and only inches deep, so that the wash was only a few inches deep. Those came to a boil very quickly, so you could do many more runs in a day. The government responded by raising the estimated production, and a vicious circle was launched. Finally, in 1785, the government put a tax on malt to go along with the still tax.
All this fencing with the Excise takes up 114 very densely detailed pages in E. B. McGuire’s 1973 Irish Whiskey, the standard history of the spirit. The upshot is that by 1823, when Parliament relented and changed the excise laws to something much friendlier to the distiller, the Irish whiskey industry had already been completely transformed. Small producers were out and production was mostly concentrated in a limited number of large facilities, most of them in Dublin and Cork. There, the Irish found a new way of making whiskey; one that managed to work within the law, as ridiculous as it was, while still making a fine, rich whiskey that Irish people—tough judges of whiskey—would willingly drink.
These distilleries toasted their malt over fires made from smokeless coal, not peat. They then mixed it with a large portion of raw, unmalted barley, along with smaller amounts of oats and rye and sometimes wheat. (Malt is grain that has been allowed to sprout, which produces enzymes that convert the starches in the grain into sugars. The toasting stops the sprout from consuming all those sugars. The enzymes are however still intact, and a portion of malt ground up with a mass of raw grain will convert the starches in it, too.) This got around the malt tax.
This mix of grains was then distilled first in a large pot still, holding as much as 1,500 gallons of wash. The bigger the still, the more efficient it was in facing the still tax. It also made a cleaner spirit, since a large pot gives some of the heavy, undesirable flavor compounds that come with using raw grain space to recondense and fall back into the pot before leaving the still (if you’ve been subjected to one of the many under-aged rye whiskies American micro-distillers have been pushing in recent years you will be familiar with those compounds). The resulting low wines were then redistilled not once, but twice, to get rid of more of those disagreeable compounds.
Finally, the spirit was barrel-aged. Even back in the 1780s and 1790s, one finds the occasional advertisement for “old whiskey” in British newspapers, but such aging was not standard practice until after 1800. At first, ages were low: in 1816, one Bristol merchant was proudly hawking “genuine two-year-old Irish whiskey.” Twenty-one years later, however, we find the Shakespeare Tavern in Liverpool including “Power’s well known Five Years Old Irish Whisky” among its offerings, which is old enough to make for a very pleasant dram. As the nineteenth century wore on, Irish distillers evinced a growing preference for the sweeter American white oak for their whiskey barrels rather than the traditional “Russian oak,” buying their staves from New Orleans or Québec rather than the Baltic port of Memel.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, things evolved rather differently. The big distillers did as the Irish did, making a mixed-grain whiskey at high volumes, but they were much less interested in turning out a product fit to drink as is, preferring to sell to English gin-rectifiers. Meanwhile, small distilleries ran clandestinely in the remote parts of the Highlands, making a very traditional double-distilled, pure malt whiskey, heavy, oily, strong and unaged. After 1823, these small distilleries were able to get licensed. Their whiskey, however, was rather much for all but the most avid Caledonophiles, unless tamed for a decade or so in oak (that, of course, put its price out of reach of the vast majority of drinkers).
The Scots solved this problem with technology, and Irish technology at that. Since the late 18th century, European distillers had been seeking ways to make spirits more efficiently than the old pot still could provide. It was an age of invention, and they came up with an incredible profusion of devices. The most effective of them used steam, injected into the still, to strip the alcohol out of the wash. In 1830, Aeneas Coffey, a Dublin exciseman, patented the first fully practical, fully efficient still based on that principle. A pair of tall, connected columns, one honeycombed with pipes to heat the wash and the other stacked with perforated plates where the wash trickled down through the steam, the still could be run continuously, rather than in batches, and was so efficient that it stripped off almost everything but the alcohol, yielding a spirit of great strength and purity. Unfortunately, that also meant the spirit didn’t have much flavor.
Coffey tried his invention out in Dublin. Nobody was interested in the resulting “whiskey” and the business soon failed. (It’s possible that the reason for that failure is the fact that Coffey’s father, a plumber, built the prototype still, using iron pipe rather than copper. You cannot make good whiskey with iron pipes.) The large distillers in the Scottish Lowlands, however, soon found his invention and by 1835 numerous Coffey stills—this time of copper—were up and running, turning out massive amounts of an ultralight spirit based on raw grain with only the minimum of malt needed to start fermentation. The spirit was cheap and clean, but didn’t taste like much, even when barrel-aged. Meanwhile, Irish “old-still” whiskey, as they were calling it to distinguish from the bland new spirit, was dominating the market. It was far richer and tastier than the “patent-still” whiskey, without veering into the off-putting thickness, fire and intensity of what was coming out of the Scottish pot-stills.
By the middle of the century, Scottish vintners and spirits merchants found a solution to the problem: what if they used some of their stock of the patent-still “grain whiskey,” as it was being called, to stretch out and tone down their malt whiskies and the malts to add flavor to the patent-still stuff? Let it age for a while together and you ended up with something that could compete with the Irish whiskey for palatability and undercut it in price.
The Irish were furious, regarding this Scottish “blended whiskey” as nothing more than a fraud; as real whiskey diluted with an industrial chemical. Rather than make blends of their own, they dug in their heels. The pot-still whiskey got older—by the 1860s, when blended Scotch began taking off, the industry standard was a seven-year-old whiskey. For a relatively light-bodied whiskey like Irish pot-still, seven years in the barrel is enough for it to reach full maturity, even in a soft climate like Ireland’s.
Other than that, they changed nothing. While column stills did operate in Ireland, the spirit they made was strictly for export. There was no blended Irish whiskey. Not in the 1860s, and, in fact, not until the 1960s.
Over the intervening century, while the big Irish distillers—John Jameson and John Power in Dublin, Cork Distilleries in Cork, John Locke in Kilbeggan, Daniel E. Williams in Tullamore, and the Bushmills malt distillery in Coleraine, up in the part of the island that stayed with England after the Irish War of Independence—kept making their pot-still whiskies, Scottish blends ate up most of their market. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jameson was reduced to advertising its seven-year-old, pure pot still whiskey in America as a “blended Irish whiskey,” based on the technicality that it was a blend of pot-still whiskies of several ages. Nobody knew or cared what the “pot still” that it defiantly kept on the label meant.
The only major change came in the 1950s, when the surviving distillers dropped the small grains, the rye and the oats and the wheat, from their mash bills, apparently in the interest of making a slightly smoother, slightly cheaper product. It didn’t help. Sales were worse than stagnant. Irish whiskey was dying.
By the early 1970s, the Irish had caved. All of the remaining distillers on the island were united under one corporate umbrella, Irish Distillers, Ltd., and they only had two distilleries: Bushmills for malt, and a massive new one at Midleton outside Cork for pot-still whiskey and, now, column-still grain whiskey, which was blended with either the pot still, the malt, or both. IDL kept one brand of pure pot-still whiskey around for old times’ sake, the 12-year-old Redbreast. It didn’t sell much, but it was proof of concept that Irish pot-still whiskey was lovely stuff.
The directors of IDL had plans, though. In 1988, they arranged to sell themselves to the French Pernod Ricard company, which at the time had only one non-French brand. That saved them from a hostile takeover from the British Grand Metropolitan company, which was planning to dismember IDL and sell off the separate brands. With an infusion of French capital, they began replacing worn-out cooperage and making long-term plans. The main plan was to promote Jameson into a global lifestyle-type brand, like Bacardi or Absolut or Jack Daniel’s—brands that people drink who don’t know the difference between rum, vodka or Tennessee whiskey. They would use the profits to reinvest in the company and reestablish Irish pot-still whiskey as a category.
Unlike all too many marketing plans, this one worked. Indeed, today Irish whiskey in general is one of the fastest growing spirit categories. Not only did IDL’s success revitalize its own brands, it also inspired a raft of new distilleries that have opened over the last decade, with an assist from the Cooley company, which began making double-distilled malt whiskey, also in 1988, in an old potato-spirit distillery north of Dublin and marketing a range of malts and blends.
For those of us whose hearts used to get a lift when we walked into an Irish bar and saw a bottle of Redbreast on the shelf; who used to hoard it and pour it out sparingly for only our best friends, these are good times.
The return of pot-still Irish whiskey is proof that sometimes, anyway, a stubborn resistance to the compromises the world constantly thrusts upon us will be rewarded. It might take a while, but the toasts at the end will be sweet.