An old Irish proverb has come to mind: “What whiskey can not cure, there is no cure for.” When thinking of the Ireland, one almost always thinks of whiskey. The distilling craft tradition is famed indeed, and is interwoven by the country’s reputation for imbibing. In the nineteenth century the country boasted of 88 licensed distilleries, which at one point in the twentieth century dwindled to just a few. Nowadays, Ireland has a highly competitive spirits industry recapturing its prominence of yesteryear with youngbloods who have a desire revive as well as modernize and enhance old craft methods.
Ireland long sustained its whiskey tradition with the five most well-known distilleries: Bushmills, Teeling, Cooley, Kilbeggan and, of course, Jameson’s home, Midleton. For it to be Irish whiskey, it must be made from mashed malted barley grains, distilled to no more than 94.8% alcohol, be matured in wooden caskets for at least 4 years, and produced in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. It also cannot be bottled with less than 40% alcohol by volume. This is the law as stated in the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980. Although the overall process of distilling whiskey hasn’t changed, diversification within the essential processes has impact on flavor for originality while still retaining authenticity.
Today, the entrepreneurial spirit in Ireland keeps the whiskey industry thriving beyond historic and long established favorites. In 2016, as many as ten distilleries began production of whiskey with at least twice that to ensue production within the next few years. Ireland now may brag of of 18 licensed distilleries with the potential of 37, or more, very soon, an astonishing amount for the country’s scale. The craft and bespoke movement of recent years has inspired many to create a fresh niche in the making this familiar liquor as well as draw upon the country’s cultural heritage for inspiration and original brands. The once dying practice of coopering, the art and craft of wood cask-making, has been reinvigorated under the tutelage of older virtuosos for the upstart distilleries. This Irish Renaissance makes for a spectrum of whiskeys with nuanced style and taste. A particular business model for new distilleries–which requires a significant investment before an appropriately aged batch can be available–is to launch a vodka and/or gin label first as those liquors do not require the maturation process of whiskeys. It’s a much quicker turn around to get to market.
Teeling, one of the leading labels of Ireland, dating back to the eighteenth century, has found unique ways to develop new distinct flavors to old recipes by aging the whiskey in barrels that held other aged beverages such as rum or various wines. The palette detects a sweeter taste with the rum, notes of honey and fruits, but not syrupy. The vessels of California cabernet sauvignons, with their substantial tannins, provide ambrosial depth to single grain mixtures made with corn, typically a grain not recommended for a more complex tasting whiskey. The coppery hued liquid has berry and spice notes, and finishes very dry, a bit like the wine itself. Teeling has experimented with the barrels of other wine types such as madeira, port, sherry and white bordeaux. These lively, creative twists invite the savory cuisine pairings that the wines do. The whiskey cabernet barrels would do nicely with a lamb shepherd’s pie or beef stew, mainstays in the Irish diet. For cheese, the pungent, ripened blues cheeses such as roquefort or gorgonzola is a spot on combination. The white bordeaux whiskey, like the cabernet, has a dry finish and would compliment seafood and pork dishes as well as work with ripened blue cheeses. It’s a wine also known for significant tannins. However adventurous in its aging process utilizing an international array of wine varieties, the Teeling whiskeys are, unmistakably, still, Irish. Additionally to note, Teeling recently opened a fully functional new pot distillery in Dublin City Centre where they are able to experiment and innovate more extensively as well as provide visitor tours and tastings.
The most illustrious Irish label worldwide, Jamesons, has also found success with maturation innovations. The historic distillery’s Caskmates series employs barrels from beer brewing, particularly stout and IPAs. Some Scotch and Bourbon producers have experimented with beer barrels, but Jameson is the first Irish whiskey to follow that path. This collaborative process came about through the friendship of Jamesons’ Head of Whiskey Science, David Quinn, and Shane Long, the founder of Franciscan Wells craft brewery, which is just down the road from Jameson’s’ distillery in County Cork. Long hoped to convince his friend to borrow some of the whiskey barrels for the beers in hopes to create a whiskey finish. It did. Upon their return, it occurred to Quinn: why not use the beer-soaked barrels for the whiskey? Uncertain that it would create a quality taste and finish, Quinn risked it and the result was uniquely outstanding. This method was a perfect means to create infused flavor without resorting to artificial additives, something Jamesons has no intention of trying. Caskmates is also ideal for pairing with beer, and the robust sweetness and richness of stout infused whiskeys are optimal for braised meats, stews, and pork dishes.
Rademon Estate Distillery in Northern Ireland’s County Down, founded in 2012 by the husband and wife team Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong, began with their award-winning Shortcross Gin in 2014. They plan to experiment with different aging casks and copper pots for the production of their single-malt whiskey. Unlike the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland has not had the entrepreneurial burst of craft distilling, and currently, Rademon faces a business challenge with Brexit. The uncertainty certainly affects their ability to make specific decisions for exports and growth.
Boann Distillery on the eastern coast in Drogheda, the first there in 50 years, began with gin too, and is a family affair as well. The Cooney family of Boyne Valley started the distillery to revive the Irish tradition for the region. Like Teeling, they utilize port and sherry casks for a robust flavor and finishes as well as experimentation with copper distilling pots for their Irish malt whiskey. The sweetness in flavor will pair well with mushroom or risotto type dishes as well as Spanish rices, naturally. Stew and casseroles, and mature cheeses make for complimentary morsels to relish. Boann also has a visitor center for tours and tasting that includes the area’s craft brewery Boyne Brewhouse.
Nephin Irish Whiskey, in County Mayo was founded in 2014 by husband and wife duo Paul and Jude Davis. Working with Master Cooper John Neilly, they produce a peated single malt whiskey with a recipe of local barley, Nephin mountain water, locally cut turf, and copper pots stills. The in-house crafted casks are made of carefully sourced wood–for which Neilly has particular skill–rather than upcycle barrels from the bourbon or wine industry. Their peaty product pairs well with roasted nuts or dried fruits.
To the south along the eastern coast is Waterford Distillery, founded in 2015, where they also possess a passion for terroir when creating their single malt. Natural spring water from nearby ancient wells, the barley is sourced from 46 different farms, some organic, and and grown in 19 distinctive soils, which all vary in taste. The whiskey is one that is specific to the environment and one that is of Ireland. With digital tracking technology, Waterford is able to keep track of the where and what as they source so many growers; each farmer’s crop is harvested, stored, and distilled separately. They do use reconstituted casks, typically of bourbon. Their first output ran in 2016. Seafoods such as smoked salmon or scallops partner perfectly with the single malt varieties.
Also south is West Cork Distillers, founded in 2003 by three life-long friends Denis McCarthy, Ger McCarthy and John O’Connell. With West Cork, most of the fermentation and distilling equipment is crafted in-house for their blended and single malt production. They use copper distilling pots, source only Irish grown barley, and triple distill all their whiskeys. West Cork also believes that the meso-thermal microclimate of their Atlantic Archipelago home provides an excellent maturation situation resulting with exceptional taste. Although they make their own distilling equipment, the casks ar upcycle, mostly from the bourbon industry. Their blended whiskey label, Black Cask, ages in a bourbon cask; it is then placed in a charred barrel for a final polish. The palette will be surprised by both the sweetness and vanilla with a slight smoky finish. Dishes with caramelized components ideally go with this full-bodied sweetness and bourbon infusion. The smoky finish also make it a rightful pairing with fruits and nuts. West Cork’s award-winning limited release 12 year Single Malt is aged in bourbon casks for most of the maturation period and then finished in either port or sherry casks, much like Boann, or rum casks. This helps avoid an overpowering of the bourbon cask aging.
The Connacht Whiskey Company is a story the Stapletons of County Mayo in the West of Ireland. The Irish American family were compelled to find their native Irish relatives. After re-establishing family ties, they decided to open a distillery bringing the Irish tradition back to the rural western coast of Ireland. They hired experienced professionals, including an acclaimed distiller, and boast of custom made copper distilling pots. Their Brotherhood Irish American Blended Whiskey directly represents the reunion. Connacht’s 10 year single malt Spade&Buschel is a noteworthy point of pride; it won a gold medal for cask strength in 2016. It was distilled at a higher proof of alcohol,115%, in the hopes that it would create greater depth of flavor, and the critics agreed. Their commitment to the western land is paramount and manifests with sourcing the best grains from neighboring counties combined with water from natural lakes in nearby County Mayo. And, as many other whiskeys, the maturation is done with bourbon casks; the American derived element is surely apt for Connacht’s Whiskey enterprise. The distillery also feels the climate along the Atlantic provides a singular flavor of Ireland’s west coast.
There is no doubt that small businesses can think big while executing expertly crafted products and retaining an authentic cultural heritage. For Ireland, whiskey is gold and what’s old is new again.