You Need to Drink these Irish Single Pot Still Whiskies
We tasted our way through this rapidly growing category of Irish whiskies and were pleasantly surprised.
A couple months back, I wrote a fairly lengthy exploration (OK, so what else is new?) of Irish “single pot-still” whiskey, as it’s now called—the stuff that’s distilled exclusively in pot stills, usually three times, from a mix of malted and unmalted barley.
I talked about its birth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its rise in the late nineteenth, its near death in the late twentieth, and its rebirth in the twenty-first. What I neglected to do in that column, however, was talk in any detail about the results of that rebirth; about all the lovely Irish single pot still whiskies you can actually take home and drink. What say we fix that?
Ten years ago there was only one bottling of single pot still Irish whiskey available in the United States, Redbreast 12, and only three in Ireland. Now there are some twenty-odd bottlings.
But that’s not quite the explosion it sounds like: many are limited editions, at least five or six of them are different expressions of Redbreast, three are expressions of the John Powers brand, and all but two are made at the same distillery, the massive Midleton distillery outside of Cork that also makes Jameson.
It’s still, however, more whiskies than will fit into a useful roundup. I chose six to taste; whiskies that are available here. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the pot still whiskies from the new Teeling or Dingle distilleries, the two that don’t come from Midleton, and don’t come to America—yet.)
To make up for that, I threw in a couple of other whiskies that have close links to the category (I’ll explain later), plus an Irish single malt, for contrast.
We’ll start where one must start, with the Redbreast 12 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (40-percent ABV; $58), the torch that kept the category alive throughout the darkness of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It’s not a heavy whiskey, like many single malt Scotches. Those are only distilled twice to the Redbreast’s three, and that extra distillation cuts out the thick oiliness that you find across the Irish Sea. But it’s not a light drink in terms of flavor: rich and grainy, it has the hint of forest-floor-in-summer muskiness that is characteristic of the class.
It’s interesting to taste the Redbreast against a comparable Irish single-malt, such as the triple-distilled Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey (43-percent ABV; $50), it was distilled at Bushmills and matured by Knappogue. At first, the two whiskies are surprisingly similar. But as your nose loiters over the Knappogue, there is a delicate, floral note absent from the Redbreast. On the palate, while both are subtle and beautifully integrated spirits (indeed, it’s hard to put either glass down), as you let them linger real differences begin to appear. The Knappogue, which is made completely from malted barley, resolves into a burst of pure, clear honey, sweet and lilting. While the Redbreast has a good dose of that honey, the unmalted grain in its mashbill gives it an underlying dark earthiness that is equally appealing and has greater staying power.
Until just a few years ago, one of the things I always tried to do when I found myself in Dublin was swing by the Mitchell & Son liquor store. There, and only there, you could get the two other single pot still whiskies, the ones that weren’t Redbreast. Green Spot and Yellow Spot, they were called, and they were bottled specially for Mitchell’s.
Then Irish Distillers, the company that owns the Midleton Distillery, made so much money off of Jameson that it could afford to relaunch the pot still category. Among the things that meant was making a lot more of the Spots, enough that it could be exported. Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (40-percent ABV; $60) is the younger of the two, a bright and sprightly whiskey with notes of freshly-split firewood and a healthy whack of grain to follow. (There is also a version finished in Château Léoville Barton Bordeaux casks, and one finished in Chateau Montelena California zinfandel casks; both are well worth a taste.)
Then there’s the Yellow Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (46-percent ABV; $105), a whiskey I can never keep in the house for more than a few days. At 12-years-old, it’s fully mature—triple-distilled whiskies such as these don’t need quite so many years in oak to reach their full potential as double-distilled Scotches do—and full of flavor. Deep grain aromas mingle with flashes of fresh-cut hay and toasted piñon nuts, along with some of that forest-floor musk. On the palate, the whiskey’s rich, sweet graininess is balanced by some austere oak tannins, enough to keep it crisp, and a juicy note from the Malaga wine casks used to age some of the whiskey that goes into it. It’s a cult whiskey, and small wonder. (Also, keep a look out for the new Red Spot, which has already launched in Ireland and is expected over here in the new year. I know I will be.)
Rapidly becoming another cult whiskey is the Powers John’s Lane 12 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (46-percent ABV; $72). Until the 1950s, all Irish whiskies were made in pot stills. The biggest brands were either pure pot still (Jameson, Powers) or blends of pure pot still and single malt (Paddy, Tullamore Dew). By 1970, all the companies had converted to making blends, with a big whack of the lighter, column-distilled grain whiskey mixed in. The current John Powers blend, a traditional and sentimental favorite in Dublin (it’s even mentioned in James Joyce’s landmark book, Ulysses) and any dive bar I’m at, is rather richer and fuller than its stablemate, Jameson. Small wonder then that Irish Distillers reached for the Power’s label when it started rebuilding its pot-still stable. At 12 years old, the John’s Lane, named after the street in Dublin where the brand used to be distilled, is heady and dark, with a rich/dry dichotomy that conjures up a pint of Guinness stout. And yet it’s not a huge whiskey—it still does its work at conversational volume, which indeed is the specialty of all Irish single pot still whiskies.
There are not one but two other Powers-branded pot still whiskies available, the Powers Signature Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (46-percent ABV; $47) and the new Powers Three Swallows Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (43.2-percent ABV; $45). I’m not sure what the relationship is between them; if the Three Swallows is intended to augment or replace the Signature, but they’re remarkably similar drams: nice, juicy whiskies with hints of that common musk and a lot of bright barley.
Finally, there are two whiskies it’s worth tasting alongside these that can’t call themselves “single pot still Irish whiskey,” one because it takes too many liberties with its mashbill and the other because it not only does that, but is also not even made in Ireland.
By law, an Irish single pot still whiskey has to have at least 30-percent barley malt and at least 30-percent unmalted barley in its mashbill (the mix of grains from which the whiskey is fermented). A distiller can also add up to three percent of other grains. (Until the 1950s, Irish distillers used to supplement the barley in their whiskies with a significant percentage of oats and either rye or occasionally wheat—often as much as 20 percent of the former and 30 percent of the latter.)
A few years ago, the Kilbeggan distillery began laying down experimental barrels of something they were making in their pot stills but could never, under current law, call a pot still whiskey, as it was distilled (only twice) from roughly equal parts malt, unmalted barley, and rye—that’s some ten times as much rye as current law allows. The new Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye Irish Whiskey (43-percent ABV; $35) is the result. This is a fascinating whiskey: grainy and bright, with lots of sweet barley in the nose, it also has something that reminds me of those dense, nutty loaves you used to buy at hippie-run health food stores. On the palate, the rye throws in a lot of its characteristic dark-chocolate notes to go with the nuttiness of the barley, making me think of rocky road ice cream. That’s not a bad thing. This is one experiment I hope to see repeated.
Finally, there’s The Emerald 1865 (43.8-percent ABV; $90), from the Ransom distillery in Oregon. I couldn’t look at Irish pot-still whiskies without mentioning this one, although I have to also mention that I helped Ransom with the historical information upon which they based this whiskey. (I have no financial stake in it.) It’s made, you see, by following an 1865 Irish mashbill, complete with malted and unmalted barleys, rye, and oats. Double distilled, it’s a little meatier than the Irish ones are, and a little more rambunctious—there are still a few young-whiskey notes in the nose, although they blow off quickly. Beneath them is a spicy, chewy, thick (like, well, oatmeal) and sweet whiskey, made tangy with pinpricks of nutmeg and clove. And yet it, too, has a little of that Irish mossiness lying beneath all the bakery business.
After tasting through these whiskies, I took away two things: one, each spirit left me wanting more. These are not whiskies for admiring from afar; they want to be liked, and they make it easy. Two: we’re just at the beginning of finding out what the category is capable of. As some of the new distilleries in Ireland start releasing single pot stills, I expect we’re going to find some real surprises among them.