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Irish Whiskey: The Ins and Outs

In praising strong whiskey there is an old Irish saying that goes something like this: –“I felt it like a torchlight procession going down my throat.”

Whiskey Trinity

Pot distilling whiskey since the 13th century, Irish distillers have a long history of making this fine spirit and in some ways very little about its production has changed.
Just what is it that makes Irish whiskey, well, Irish? Like their shamrocks with three leaves of unity and the three stripes on their national flag, the key aspects of these whiskies are also in the power of three. What sets Irish whiskey apart stylistically is the use of triple-distilled, unpeated, unmalted barley. Then blended with mash from malted barley, this system is referred to as ‘Single Pot Still Whiskey’, or Midleton Single Pot Still, and for many generations was considered the most sought after whiskey style in the world.

Why Unmalted Barley?

Because of the taxman, that’s why! The true ‘Irish Signature’ element that is the backbone of these blends, the use of unmalted barley dates back to the mid-1800s when distillers wanted to avoid the taxes on malted barley. The unmalted form is also higher in starch, resulting in higher alcohol yields. Making up to 60% of blends, unmalted barley adds in spicy, fruity, and oily characters to the final spirit.

Triple Distillation

Exclusively made in Ireland, Midleton’s Single Pot Still is a process that involves three separate distillations in a copper pot still. In the

The pot stills in the Old Jameson Distillery

The pot stills in the Old Jameson Distillery

first run, the wash is heated in the wash still and condensed into low wines at roughly 22-50% abv. The second run the low wines produce different feints at about 50-78% abv. The feints are then split into their different strengths: heads, heart, and tails. The heart consists of the ‘strong feints’ and is separated from the ‘weak feints’, which are in the heads and tails. These weak feints are re-distilled with low wines while the strong feints move on to the third distillation….Afterwards it is again split into its three parts: the heart of the final distillation is collected as new-make spirit while the heads and tails are re-distilled with the next batch of strong feints.

Is that a mouthful or what? But the plus side of this intricately selective process is that the flavors are often smoother and a little more elegant than say double pot distilled scotch. But their distillation can be made even more dynamic by producers selecting their own cut points and different strengths. This means that although Irish whiskey can be somewhat uniform in the general process, these selective cut points create an immensely wide range of styles and flavors. Great examples of this diversity in single pot still productions are the fuller bodied Redbreast versus the slightly sweeter Green Spot.

Exceptions to the Rule

While triple pot distillation is by far the most highly used process in Irish whiskey, other distillation techniques are also utilized as well. For grain whiskies with a high percentage of corn in the mash bill, the Midleton Column Still is used. Further pushing the envelope is Bushmills who produces 100% malted barley whiskey as well as Connemara who produces peated single malt whiskey. Additionally, Cooley’s Greenore Single Grain Whiskey is unique in that it is primarily produced from corn that is imported from France.


Sticking to their Guns

When the invention of the Coffey Still, or continuous column still, emerged in 1830 it presented a much more efficient distillation process that many, especially Scotland, embraced with open arms. Ireland’s four distilleries at the time were not so welcoming. John Jameson himself even commented that the Coffey Still produced tasteless excuses that were not real whiskey. With scotch on the rise with this new system, Ireland’s whiskey industry began its downward spiral. Post WWII things only became worse as scotch conquered the global market, reducing Ireland down to only two standing distilleries; Midleton and Old Bushmills.

Irish Renaissance

After a long dark era for Ireland’s whiskey production, with the help of powerhouse Jameson Whiskey, in the past several years these distillers have found themselves in a renaissance and things are only continuing to look up for them. Opened in 1987, Cooley Distillery entered the market during this dark age and survived against all odds and continues to thrive today. Kilbeggan, which had been shut down in 1975, reopened its doors in 2007 and is now stronger than ever.

Ireland’s whiskey industry is proof that if you stand your ground and stick to what matters to you most, success can certainly find its way back to you.

With a little luck of the Irish and the undeniable skillset of these distillers, Irish whiskey is back with a vengeance and is quite a force to be reckoned with.

Whether you’re drinking a glass of Paddy Whiskey neat or sipping Tullamore Dew in an Irish coffee, chances are you are going to love what you’re tasting. So this St. Patrick’s Day grab your friends and enjoy the delicious splendors of Irish whiskey. Sláinte!

“The rise and fall and rise again of pot still Irish Whiskey”
A documentary by Peter Mulryan



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About The Author
Julie Albin
Julie Albin is a wine and spirits writer based in San Francisco and is currently the Editor-in-Chief for Drink Me Magazine. Her work has also been published in Whisky Advocate, Grape Collective, SOMA Magazine, Wine Geographic, Connoisseur Magazine, 2Paragraphs, etc. She is a Certified Specialist of Wine and has also completed her WSET Diploma. To further her expertise in the industry, Julie has spent much time in Europe meeting with winemakers and distillers to learn about their stories.

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