Charting the rise of Irish single pot whiskey

Author of ‘A Glass Apart’Fionnán O’Connor shares his thoughts on the history of single pot still Irish whiskey

In the latter half of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was one of the most highly regarded drinks in the record-keeping world with international London merchants selling an average of three Irish cases to every case of Scotch.

Rural distilleries such as Bandon, Comber, Monasterevan, Nun’s Island, and Coleraine found their whiskeys patronised by parliament members and New York property tycoons alike while the full-bodied drams of old Dublin legends such as Powers, Roe’s, and Marrowbone Lane had earned a reputationas the best brown liquor that money could buy.

At the heart of Dublin distilling’s halcyon days lay the uniquely ‘mixed’ mash bill of traditional Irish ‘pure pot still’ whiskey.Although it often included small portions of wheat and oats, this definitively Irish style was mainly defined by the inclusion in the mash of raw unmalted barley along with the malt.

Neither a blend nor a single malt, the result was a spirit with the same cereal depth of its otherwise identical single malt sister but with a spicy bristle from the raw unmalted barley and a noticeably thicker and more lathery texture. Having originally become popular in Ireland as a means of dodging the malt tax of 1785, this peculiar and technically inefficient mashbill had subsequently become the hallmark of Irish distilling as a trade. Long after the tax was repealed, the recipe remained. The ratio of malted to unmalted barley varied from distillery to distillery and that textural diversity was an intimate part of the lifeblood of Irish whiskey itself.

When English journalist Alfred Barnard made his famous tour of ‘The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’ in the 1880s, he wrote about the “fat and creamy” pot still drams, “pronounced in the ancient aromas of Irish Whisky, so dear to the hearts of connoisseurs”. Of the 28 distilleries that Barnard visited, only two were devoted to what we now call single malt whiskey - the rest were simply too busy making the most beloved tipple in the British Empire, what we now know as single pot still Irish whiskey.

However, by 1909 the cracks in the pot still were starting to show as the popularity of the column still invented by Aeneas Coffee had spread in Scotland. Earlier that year, a royal commission declared whiskey to be the grain distilled product of either a pot or a column still and large Scottish firms were given the green light to expand their industry at the full capacities of their capital and equipment.

By the time Ireland’s civil war started in 1922 discreet embargo on the one hand and prohibition on the other left the Irish distilleries with very few people to sell to. Irish whiskey became a clear target for forgery as Al Capone and company began selling counterfeit ‘Irish whiskeys’ browned with anything from cola to battery acid.

These rotgut spirits were produced as quickly as the mob could sell them and by the time prohibition was repealed, Irish whiskey’s reputation was either fading with a dying generation or degrading into a by word among its successors.

To make matters worse, the fledgling Irish Free State entered a trade war with Britain and as blended scotch took its first steps into the global success that it enjoys to this day, over three quarters of Ireland’s distilleries bit the dust in quick succession and Irish pure pot still almost vanished entirely.

A hundred years since Barnard’s visit, in 1987, the island of Ireland was littered with the abandoned stills, stone walls and malt chimneys of its long silent distilleries and there were only two Irish pot still whiskeys left in existence. One of them was only sold by a specialist wine shop in Dublin and the other was in the process of being discontinued.

Old bottles of ‘pure pot still’ whiskey sat on bar shelves here and there across the country gathering dust and some of it even lay forgotten in private cellars. The one style only made in Ireland came close to extinction but the foresight of Irish Distillers Ltd in laying down stocks of single pot still Irish whiskey at its distillery in Midleton, Co Cork allowed it to re-launch this uniquely Irish spirit in 2010 and it has been reborn –long may it last.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in Unfiltered, the members’ magazine of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Irish Whiskey magazine caught up with former Irish rugby international Gordon D’Arcy who is a fan of the spirit and particularly enjoys the single pot still varieties

How long have you had an interest in Irish whiskey?
A I’ve probably always had an interest in whiskey. It has been and always will be the quintessential Irish drink.

What drew you to Irish whiskey?
A The taste mostly and the variety. I also love the human element of whiskey from working with casks to blending. This is something that will never be replicated by a computer or by an unskilled hand. Master blenders hold all the knowledge - they decide what and how to blend. This doesn’t change if it is a huge brand or a small local distillery.

When would you enjoy an Irish whiskey?
A I can enjoy a whiskey a lot more now that I am retired.While playing it was always about picking your battles so after a big win or on some time off I’d enjoy a glass or two. Kelly’s Hotel in Rosslare, Co Wexford has a huge open log fire and on cold days a nice whiskey with my wife Aoife isa great evening.

Have you any particular favourites?
A At the moment I’m drinking Powers Three Swallow - a really great example of a single pot still whiskey. It is spicy but not overpowering and has a lovely smooth creamy finish (thanks to the single pot still distillation).

What advice would you offer a novice getting into Irishwhiskey?
A Do a whiskey tasting with somebody who is going to explain the little intricacies going on. There are lots of subtle things happening in whiskey and the experience can be made much more enjoyable if they are being pointed out as you go.

What is your best rugby memory?
A I have been fortunate to play rugby for so long and even more so to have played in great teams that have had such success. There have been so many amazing days but most recently bringing my little girl Soleil to an Irish rugby match was truly special. It turned out to be my last time representing Ireland and to have her there made it even more memorable.

What are your comments on the recent Rugby World Cup and Ireland’s performance in it?
I think we were desperately unlucky. We were robbed of the chance to see how far we could go. If any team was robbed of five starting players of that quality, they would have struggled to go any further. It is a terrible shame that we didn’t get to see Paul (O’Connell) play in a semi-final or makes for a very exciting RBS 6 Nations! I can’t help but feel some young guns will get a shot in a green jersey this season.

What are you up to at the moment work/career-wise?
I’m getting ready to start work with banking and asset management group Investec. I have been doing some intern work with them over the past year or so and I start properly in January. Then I will also be a little more involved with The Exchequer Wine Bar in Dublin and also helping out my wife in Form School (a former Pilates studio) where I can.

Map of Irish Whiskey Distilleriers, existing, new and planned

Dawn of a new golden age
Following ten years of impressive growth Irish whiskey is poised to go up a gear in building its global market share with a focus on collaboration

Irish whiskey is experiencing a global renaissance largely thanks to significant investment by the larger distilleries in their brands –particularly the Irish Distillers Ltd owned brand Jameson which has been the flag bearer for the spirit internationally today representing 68pc of the total Irish whiskey category. Annual exports of Irish whiskey are currently valued at over €300m, up 220pc since 2003, according to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), whose ‘Vision for Irish Whiskey’ strategy launched in May predicts that they will double by 2020 and double again by 2030.

It also projects that the segment’s global market share will grow from around 4% currently to 12% by 2030. Simon Fay, international marketing director Irish Distillers Ltd, believes quality will be at the heart of the continued growth of Irish whiskey.

“If you look at the total whiskey category, in particularthe Scotch and bourbon segments, we are very small and in our infancy as a category. As a collective, we must ensure that Irish whiskey is seen and recognised for the quality that has established it to date,” he says.

“We must continue to innovate from the premium segment and above. The American/bourbon category has really focused on quality, super premium whiskeys that communicate craft and their style of whiskey making.

“The Irish segment has all the right quality credentials to compete and in my opinion will become bigger than the American/bourbon category by protecting our quality standards.”

Chairman of the IWA Bernard Walsh, who founded Walsh Whiskey Distillery in 1999, maintains that the Irish industry should be inspired by its Scottish counterpart in terms of the massive potential that exists.

“I am not suggesting that we pitch our tent against Scotch whiskey. But Scotland is a similar territory to Ireland in terms of population and geography and it has created a wonderful industry in the past two centuries. There are over 130 Scottish distilleries exporting over 90 million 9-litre cases annually with Scotch whiskey now accounting for one quarter of all British food and drink exports. If Irish whiskey could achieve a similar proportion of Irish exports it would be a superb result.”


Much has already been achieved in Ireland’s whiskey sector which has essentially brought itself back from the brink with its brands now representing the fastest growing spirit globally. In 2014, more than 6.7 million 9-litre cases of Irish whiskey were exported to over 100 countries around the world.

This figure is set to exceed 12 million cases by 2020 and 24 million cases by 2030.

Three years ago the island of Ireland had four distilleries in operation – in the next three years that number will grow to over 20 if all the current projects move forward and there is now a total of 32 new or proposed distilleries across Ireland .

“The Irish whiskey industry went from being one of the largest in the world with many distilleries down to just a handful after almost a century of consolidation. As with all consolidations there will always be an uprising or a revolution and that is happening now. From the crumbs of the table you will get the start-ups,” says Walsh.

“Over the past ten years over €1bn has been invested in the category by both large and small players and the forecast is that a further €1bn will be invested over the next ten years. “It is critical for the long-term viability of the sector that there is a healthy balance between large and small operators. We all need each other and everybody has to really understand the need to produce to the highest quality.

Hats off to existing companies such as Irish Distillers Ltdfor keeping the bar high for so many years. They are the custodians of the product and we all have a duty to keep that up.”

Historically Irish distillers have often worked together forthe common good of the category and in promoting it abroad, despite beingcompetitors on the shelf at home. In 1916 they formed the Irish

Pot Still Distillers Association with that in mind and thereare several mentions in the records housed in Irish Distillers Ltd’s Midleton archive of directors of different distilleries acting together on various issues.

The IWA is the modern-day equivalent of the Irish Pot StillDistillers Association formed nearly 100 years later but with a similar ethos.“The IWA came from the realisation by larger distilleries and some smaller ones that we really needed to get our act together as the category was taking off and we wanted to grow it in a controlled manner,” Walsh explains.

“This means protecting our trademark internationally and supporting new entrants. We aim to proactively promote the category as one entity, which has never been done before in this way. A working group on international promotion has already been set up which will mean whiskey companies working together in a united fashion on marketing campaigns in the coming months.”

Since July this year Irish whiskey has its own geographic indicator under EU law, which Walsh says has been an important development in the context of the IWA’s objectives. It means that Irish whiskey must be produced on the island of Ireland in accordance with strict technical specifications notified to the European Commission.

Launching the regulations Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said: “These regulations mean that inferior products or those that do not share the uniquely Irish heritage of these protected geographical indications cannot be sold as Irish whiskey. They can help to protect the reputation and integrity of these products, but also to protect Irish jobs.From a consumer perspective, they will also give assurance to customers, at home and abroad, of the quality of the unique spirit products they are consuming.”


From a tourism point of view Ireland is becoming to whiskey what France is to wine as the popularity of visitor centres and tastings rises, writes Sorcha Corcoran

Having made a trip to the Jameson Experience visitor centre in Midleton, Co Cork and taken a wander through the Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin’s City Centre recently the appeal of these visitor attractions is clearly apparent.

From the beauty of the majestic gleaming copper pot still at the opening of the Jameson Experience to the sweet smell of the oak barrels in the cooperage there, the experience is a feast for the senses that leaves you with a warm glow and sense of pride in a craft and tradition that is unique to Ireland – you can even get your own personally labelled bottle of Jameson to take away.

Apart from anything else, the Irish whiskey story itself is fascinating – in the Victorian-style bar in the Irish Whiskey Museum on College Green you get a sense of the time when single pot still Irish whiskey dominated the world.

While there the guide told us about the 1875 Liberties Whiskey Fire – a malt house and a bonded warehouse in the Liberties area of Dublin went up in flames and burning whiskey flowed through Ardee Street and Mill Street.
In another beautifully designed room a swirl of Irish whiskey bottles around the walls spanning over 100 years is used to illustrate how the spirit suffered a series of hard knocks only to rise again in the past ten years. You can try three different whiskeys at the end of the tour in the tasting bar which features an impressive large artwork of a bottle of whiskey being poured (with whiskey-coloured liquid coming out!).
Currently, 600,000 visitors a year are welcomed to the five Irish whiskey visitor centres: Jameson in Smithfield, Midleton, in Co Cork, Bushmills in Co Antrim, Tullamore Dew and Kilbeggan in Co Offaly while the Irish Whiskey Museum expects to reach 60,000 visitors this year.

According to the Irish Whiskey Association in its ‘Vision for Irish Whiskey’, the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin welcomes more than one million visitors a year and it is valid to extrapolate that success to the Irish whiskey sector as the number of global Irish whiskey brands develops. The projections are 800,000 visitors a year in the medium term.
Irish Distillers Ltd was among the first to recognise the need and demand for a tourist attraction in the early 1990s when it set up a visitor centre near the former Bow Street distillery in Dublin.

“American consumers in particular at the time wanted to see where Jameson was made having seen the brand in their market. Within eight months of opening there had been 45,000 visitors and it grew from there. The Bow Street site was in ruins and when it became available in 1997, Irish Distillers Ltd recognised the importance of re-owning Jameson’s original home and turning it into a visitor attraction,” explains Sabine Sheehan, sales and marketing manager, Jameson Brand Homes who is based there.

For the year ending July 2015 the Dublin attraction hit a record 284,000 visitors while 122,000 people went to the Jameson Experience in Midleton, where tasting has become increasingly important, Sabine continues: “When we started we used to do a comparison taste test between Jameson and the leading American and Scotch brands but we have since extended this to premium whiskey tasting of the single pot still range made in Midleton.

“Over the years the Midleton site has become a centre of excellence for Irish whiskey – over 10,000 bar tenders, the media and others working in the industry have been educated on the craft and premium quality of single pot still Irish whiskey in our Irish Whiskey Academy which opened in 2013 and we have recently opened a micro distillery on the site.”
Tutor Dave McCabe gave me a runthrough of the modules taught in the Irish Whiskey Academy while I was there allowing me to smell the difference between malted and unmalted barley (malted barley smells like biscuits) and talking me through the triple distilling process by showing me the scaled down copper pot stills in the micro distillery – there are miniature lab-like versions in the academy which demonstrate the process too.

In August 2013 Irish Distillers Ltd launched the Cork Whiskey Way in collaboration with ten bars in Cork. Within each pub there is a Cork Whiskey Way framed picture with a QR code and once four of the codes within the ten destinations have been scanned using a smartphone app, users receive a certificate of completion along with a complimentary pass to the Jameson Experience in Midleton.

“The Cork Whiskey Way has inspired and motivated a whiskey-centric dialogue between bar staff and consumers. The bar staff who are trained in the Irish Whiskey Academy talk through how single pot still Irish whiskey is made and remind visitors they are on the doorstep of one of the most famous distilleries in the world. A free Jameson shuttle bus takes tourists to the Jameson Experience from St Patrick’s Quay twice a day from April to October,” says Sabine.

A similar initiative kicked off in Galway this year – the Galway Whiskey Trail – involving 11 pubs all of which also sent their staff to train at the Irish Whiskey Academy. A whiskey trail is also currently being piloted in Dublin.

Manager of An Pucán Johnny Duggan was one of people who saw the opportunity in Galway and put the trail together. “The pubs are easy to go through on foot and can be covered all in one day. We felt launching the trail was a good way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Persse Distillery which was once a large employer in Galway.

“Each bar has a limestone plaque taken from the estate of Lady Gregory who was a descendent of the Persse family. We’ve distributed 40,000 brochures and tourists have been using them as a map to experience Galway. It is opening up Irish whiskey to people who hadn’t tried it before. The bars involved serve it in a different way allowing people to try a 20ml shot instead of the usual 35.5ml shot and the staff impart their knowledge on how it is made and the heritage behind this.”

There appears to be an increasing thirst for this knowledge, which Keith McDonnell, director of tour operator Extreme Ireland realised when he started looking into the feasibility of setting up the Irish Whiskey Museum around four years ago. “The more we started looking into the subject the more we realised how much rich history there was – a lot of which I and other people had never heard of. It seemed so important to tell that story to make sense of what’s going on now. Each distillery and brand has its own stories but we wanted to be independent and take into account the bigger picture.”


How should single pot still Irish whiskey be enjoyed and how do you choose the right one for you? Here’s what the experts advise

When it comes to drinking single pot still Irish whiskey it is generally considered that drinking it neat or with a dash of room temperature water are the most popular ways to enjoy it, according to international whiskey ambassador and tutor at the Irish Whiskey Academy in Midleton, Co Cork Dave McCabe.

“Adding a dash of water can often help ‘open up’ the whiskey in terms of flavours and aroma. That being said, ice is often added to create a cool and refreshing drink as well as the addition of a mixer such as soda water to create a longer drink,” he says. Depending on your taste preferences you might prefer something spicy, floral or possibly something that has a deep rich fruit character. Different whiskeys emphasise these different flavour profiles and a lot more so finding the right whiskey for you can be an interesting and rewarding experience, Dave believes.

Of the various styles of single pot still Irish whiskey, Green Spot, Redbreast 12 Year Old and Powers John’s Lane are three styles with three very different personalities.
“If you are new to the world of whiskey and feel overwhelmed by the variety of styles and the huge choice from which to choose, don’t be put off. Perhaps start off with buying a glass of whiskey in a bar before committing to purchasing a whole bottle,” Dave suggests.

“Try it neat, or add water and ice to see how these additions alter the taste of the whiskey and you’ll begin to develop your palate and you’ll notice the subtle differences from brand to brand the more you explore.”

From his 25 years’ experience Ally Alpine, manager of the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street in Dublin, agrees that a lot depends on the individual’s taste and advises on how to tell the difference between good and bad whiskey:
“For example, some people love sweet, oily whiskeys or smoky whiskeys whilst others hate them. Really bad whiskey is usually very young and hot tasting with harsh alcohol and an unbalanced feel.

“Alternatively, if the whiskey is aged in poor barrels the whiskey won’t be as good. Good whiskey will be balanced with richer, sweeter flavours and less aggressive alcohol. In short, if you find it hard to drink then it is bad.”

So, what exactly does the tasting process involve? Ally says you can tell a huge amount about a whiskey just from the aromas.

“I would suggest nosing a whiskey at least twice before sipping it. Quite often the second nosing reveals a lot more than the first because the vapours have had time to move around the glass,” he says.

“When tasting it is important to move the liquid around in your mouth so that you can experience the full flavour profile. This is when adding a tiny amount of water can help and you may find some whiskeys really open up with some slight dilution. However even some cask strength whiskeys taste best at their full undiluted volume.”

Ally says the Celtic Whiskey Shop had some very successful cheese and chocolate pairings at Whiskey Live Dublin this year.

“Rich, sherry cask matured whiskeys tend to work particularly well with chocolate, whilst the smoky ones go very well with cheese. However I don’t think a certain style of whiskey would appeal particularly to a novice, to a connoisseur or even to different genders. There is something for everyone, so our advice is to try as many as you can!”

When guiding his shoppers to the right whiskey for them, Ally says there are some that seem to have some universal appeal and they are always a good starting point, but giving customers a few free samples can help more than anything else.

“It is helpful to get a few pointers in advance and we are happy to make suggestions based on previous experience. “The knowledge of our customers has always been good, but there is definitely a new generation of younger drinkers who really appreciate whiskey in the right way. This has coincided with the boom in whiskey making in Ireland and I think our customers are just as excited about the future as we are.”
In Co Wexford, director of Greenacres Donal Morris is equally excited about the future of Irish whiskey – hardly surprising considering the store sold two bottles of limited release Midleton Pearl for €9,750 apiece this year. Only 117 bottles of this single pot still whiskey were produced and released to mark the 30th anniversary of Midleton Very Rare.

Mainly a wine vendor for many years, Greenacres had an old pub called The Electric Chair in which it closed a year and a half ago allowing it to transfer the whiskey license to the store. “We did this just at the right time. There is a big interest in single pot still whiskey both locally and from foreign visitors and a trend towards people wanting to learn about it then bring it home and savour it,” says Donal. Greenacres only sells Irish whiskey and has a dedicated room with an educational display describing all the different flavours and styles. Donal says he has 60 different bottles of Irish whiskey open that he is happy to allow people to taste.

“People want to analyse the whiskey and compare one against another. The days of whiskey being a chaser after a pint of Guinness are over.”

Time to review

Gerard Garland, Irish whiskey ambassador for Irish Distillers Ltd reviews a selection of the best Irish whiskeys available today.

(RRP) €59.20

The world’s most popular single pot still Irish whiskey.Originally bottled by merchants W&A Gilbey, it was called Redbreast because the CEO was an avid bird watcher. The first official reference to this whiskey as Redbreast was in August 1912. Full of aroma and flavour, Redbreast benefits from a strong contribution of whiskey that has been matured in Oloroso sherry casks. This gives Redbreast its trademark Christmas cake character - full flavoured and complex; a harmonious balance of spicy, creamy, fruity, sherry and toasted notes. The reason it has been a favourite for over a century is because it delivers every time.


40% ABV
RRP €45.00

Traditionally Powers used two or three swallows to signify the quality of their pot still whiskey to consumers. Ultimately the Three Swallow brand was launched as Powers’ signature pure pot still whiskey.

Over time all Powers’ whiskey came to bear these three iconic swallows and still do to this day. Powers Three Swallow features all the singular characteristics of traditional single pot still Irish whiskey - robust, spicy and powerful. It is matured primarily in American bourbon barrels where these characteristics are amplified and complemented with strong wood character. Marrying with a small sherry-aged component gives Powers Three Swallow balance and a bit of finesse.

Powers Three Swallow is the 21st century embodiment of the traditional pure pot still whiskey style which made Powers famous all over the world.

RRP €59.95

Mitchell & Son Wine Merchants was founded in Dublin in 1805 and is still a family-owned and operated business. This gem of a whiskey originated from a time when Mitchell & Son Wine Merchants would get its empty barrels filled with new make pot still spirit and age the barrels in its cellars under Fitzwilliam Lane in Dublin. Each barrel would be given a colour-coded spot of paint of either red, green, yellow or blue to indicate the age of the whiskey it was to become. This whiskey is very approachable and is ideal for either a whiskey drinker or someone who is just getting into whiskey. Green Spot has a full creamy pot still spicy body with green orchard fruits, vanilla sweetness rounded off with a toasted wood character

RRP €64.59

Originally a native of Wexford, innkeeper James Power founded his distillery on Thomas Street in Dublin in 1791. James Power continued to grow the distillery by adding various buildings which were purchased or leased. This included the site of what was to become the John’s Lane distillery. James’ son John Power, born in 1771, took over the running of the distillery from his father and a great period of expansion took place. The business steadily increased. In 1821, John Power brought his son James into partnership on
the day of his 21st birthday and from then on Powers traded as John Power & Son. This expression, Powers John’s Lane Release, celebrates the origin of the Powers whiskey tradition and provides a glimpse of the whiskey style that made Powers famous. Using a pot still distillate which is true to the original style of John’s Lane, the whiskey has been matured for not less than 12 years, mainly in 2nd fill American bourbon casks, with a small contribution of distillate which has been matured in Olorosso sherry butts. A wonderfully complex whiskey, leather, coco, treacle and coffee aromas combine with layers of charred wood. When you taste John’s Lane you get full-bodied spice in this distillate-driven whiskey followed by vanilla, honey and dried apricot. The finish is warm, very long and refined. Some very good whiskey at a great price.

RRP €47.19

This member of the Jameson family has all the character
of a Jameson whiskey. Jameson is characterised
by exceptional smoothness, a barley backbone, vanilla
sweetness and pot still spiciness. In Jameson Black
Barrel the aim is to dial up two of those characteristics
- sweetness and spiciness. This is achieved by creating
a unique spicy distillate (small batch grain) and ageing
it in double-charred American white oak barrels. The
double charring is supervised by master cooper Ger
Buckley who is the fifth generation of his family to be
involved in coopering. The barrels contribute sweetness
and a spicy wood character. It emits aromas of
tropical fruit, vanilla & peppery spice. At first when
you taste Black Barrel you find a smooth flavoursome
whiskey that then becomes a real taste experience -
spicy small batch grain which leads into a big vanilla
wood finish from that American white oak. The bottle
looks cool too. What’s not to like!


RRP €154.93

Midleton Very Rare was first produced in 1984 by Midleton master distiller emeritus Barry Crockett. His idea was to create a vintage each year using the best whiskeys available to him in Midleton distillery at that moment. He drew his inspiration from the tastes, sights, sounds and smells in the distillery he was raised in and the countryside that surrounds it - the Dungourney river that flows through the distillery, the giant copper pot stills, the fields from where we draw all the barley and the golden sunshine. Tradition and quality are supreme in Midleton. Midleton master distiller Brian Nation has carried on this dedication and has created a wonderful and award-winning Midleton Very Rare 2015 vintage. This vintage has more of a pot still character in my opinion, a spicier and a creamier mouth feel. The whiskey is complex with aromas of
cracked pepper, clove, sweet vanilla, apricot and pineapple.
A really pleasant, long finish with complexity of flavour that now reveals itself to the drinker

An age-old
craft lives on

One of the highlights of my recent trip to the old distillery site in Midleton was watching master cooper Ger Buckley break open a cask shipped from Kentucky which had been charred to hold Jameson Black Barrel.

After he’d tightened the hoops using a hammer and driver and shaved off the top of the cask using an adze, the sweet smell inside from the charred staves was extraordinary. “The wood has essentially been cooked and the sugars and vanillas in the oak have been carmelised. This makes more penetration of the whiskey into the wood easier,” Ger explained.

“There are various theories on how charring started. The one I favour is that casks used for transporting tobacco, fish and meat along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were cheaper to buy and distillers charred them to get rid of the smell of their contents. This was something I would have done early on as a cooper if there was a bad smelling cask – set fire to the inside with shavings to make it sweet again.”

Every year over 130,000 American barrels are handled by a cooper at Midleton Distillery, each examined for quality and repaired if necessary. “You don’t want anything causing problems and leaks so you have to ensure there are no broken pieces.

A cask might look fine on the outside but a trained eye will recognise a problem,” said Ger. A fifth generation cooper, Ger served his seven- year apprenticeship under his father Dominic and is proud to say that a lot of the tools he showed me in the cooperage were handed down through the family, some dating back 80 years.

The coopers in Midleton have always made their own timber compasses, which is unique to this cooperage.

“Coopering is the last surviving craft to use the adze,hammer and axe, which were originally made out of stone and flint 90,000 years ago. Different cultures developed them out of necessity – the American Indians for example used stone and flint to chop out canoes.

“Repairing a cask is done in the same way as my ancestors or coopers going back over a millennium used to do it. Modern technology has played a big part in manufacturing new casks but the repairing is still done in a traditional manner.”

One of only a handful of coopers left in Ireland, Ger is passionate about keeping the craft alive, and Killian O’Mahony was recently appointed as his apprentice with this in mind.

You must be over 18 years to go further. By going further you must agree to the following Terms & Conditions from Irish Distilleries.