The monster mash

What is single pot still whiskey? Is it the past, is it the future? Is it a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, an Irish Irish whiskey, a category within the category? Is it our secret weapon, or is it a marketing trick? Is it a common style, found around the world, a simple mixed mash spirit, a dumbed down single malt?  It is a bastard malt, a mongrel? Is it a testament to Irish ingenuity and a spirit born of oppression – is it a flower that grew from ruins? Is it all these things or none, and, most importantly, is it the next step?

When I think single malt, I think of Scotland. There are many exceptional single malts from around the world, and many mediocre ones from Scotland, but it is still there – a century of marketing has linked the concept of the single malt to one nation above all others. But once upon a time they used a mixed mash too. As single pot obsessive Willie Murphy noted, there is this quote the second edition of Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing:

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tax on ale, beer and whiskey (which was still referred to as aqua vitae in all statutes of the period) was essentially doubled, and it was estimated that this provision would yield £384 000 in revenue (Statute 1661, Car II, c.128). To raise this huge sum there must have been several large legitimate stills in existence, such as those of John Haig & Co., who claim that a Robert Haig established their business in 1627 (Anon., 1914). What is interesting, from a technical viewpoint, is the fact that these taxes were imposed not only on malted barley but also on spirit ‘not made of malt’. Other chronicles of this period similarly allude to spirit being made from a mixture of grains, such as oats, barley and wheat (Smith, 1776) as well as malt. So even from the earliest times some whiskey was being distilled from unmalted grain, and not all malt was made from barley. The malt tax introduced in 1701, for example, states that duty shall be paid: ‘upon all Malt, ground or unground, whether the same shall be made of Barley, or any other Corn or Grain whatsoever’ (Statute 1701, 12 &13 William III, c.5).

That Smith they are referencing is none other than the father of capitalism Adam Smith, him of ‘greed is good’/Gordon Gekko fame. In the brutal tome more commonly known as The Wealth Of Nations, Smith notes:

Malt is consumed not only in the brewery of beer and ale, but in the manufacture of wines and spirits. If the malt tax were to be raised to eighteen shillings upon the quarter, it might be necessary to make some abatement in the different excises which are imposed upon those particular sorts of low wines and spirits of which malt makes any part of the materials. In what are called malt spirits it makes commonly but a third part of the materials, the other two- thirds being either raw barley, or one-third barley and one-third wheat.

Smith wrote that back in 1776, and then there’s this from super sleuth Charlie Roche:

So before single malt knew what it was, it was a mixed mash whisky not unlike our own supposedly uniquely Irish style.

Single pot still can never compete with single malt, but it can become something else. There are obviously obstacles, because it’s not just a complex whiskey, it is also a complicated one. Referring to it as a mixed mash whiskey is actually a welcome simplification – single pot still is a confusing name, as it reflects not the style, nor the key element of the mashbill, but rather the device used to distill it. Also, as they are not allowed to call it ‘pure pot still’ anymore, it now sounds like it is only distilled once, or made using only one still. For consumers approaching the SPS category for the first time, there is a lot of baggage to get your head around. Then there is the requisite explanations of the corn laws, because every whiskey should come with a history lesson that focuses on taxation of grain. But SPS has genuine heritage, and this is where it gets even more complicated.

Peter Mulryan knows a thing or two about whiskey. He went from writing books on the subject to being the public face of Irish Distillers Ltd SPS promos and is now the driving force behind Blackwater Distillery. Mulryan has blogged about his dissatisfaction with the technical file – the document that controls what Irish whiskey is and how it is made – and has started making pot still whiskey from old mashbills, as the more recent rules mean that SPS is what IDL say it is. Mulryan notes that in all the old historical SPS mashbills he has come across, not one meets the standards set out by the technical file.

Published five years ago, the technical file was written by the large whiskey producers in Ireland at a time when a boom was looming and the finer points of the category needed to be locked down. The result is a document defining SPS to suit IDL’s in-house style – imagine if Diageo legally declared that Guinness is the only style of stout allowed by law, which, quite frankly, sounds like exactly the kind of thing Diageo would do.  

You can read the file itself here, or David Havelin’s excellent dissection of it here and here, but IDL’s influence is all over it, including references to SPS being made ‘usually in large stills’ and even allowing for a little bit of column still distillation in there, which is clearly a gob in the face of history. But SPS as a style was resuscitated and kept alive by IDL, so little wonder that they felt such a sense of ownership over it that they simply went ahead and redefined it.

And just so I can play devil’s advocaat, I would make this point – it has been five or six years since the big producers sat down to write the tech file, and a lot has changed. Grain has become a major talking point, with words like provenance and terroir becoming part of the global discussion, so one more question before I launch into an actual whiskey review – is it not possible that IDL themselves would change the technical file definition of SPS, given how restrictive it is? Are their hands not tied by the file, now that they have a micro-distillery where they can compete with the likes of Blackwater? Would they not wish to loosen the ball-gag on SPS and let it breathe a little? Is there not an archive filled with old mashbills in Midleton, recipes for pot still whiskeys of yore that could be resurrected and released in tiny batches, little pieces of history brought alive and offered to the world as part of a celebration of our heritage? Perhaps, perhaps not. But until they do, we have Midleton’s interpretation of SPS, ahistorical as it may be, and hey, it isn’t all that bad.

At a Redbreast masterclass at Whiskey Live Dublin in 2017, attendees were given a gift – a sample of Redbreast 21-year-old bottled at cask strength. I, being both antisocial and impoverished, was not in attendance, but John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan was there, and through a circuitous route that involved Omar ‘That’s Dram Good’ Fitzell smuggling the sample up from Kerry, I managed to get my paws on a generous portion of this fabled whiskey (a 100ml sample of it sold at auction for more than a hundred euro earlier this year).

And so to some notes on this rarest of birds:

Nose: Hello again, chocolate, tobacco, leather, raisins, and for SPS Redbreast bingo, Christmas cake in a glass, complete with marzipan and brandy butter. Pear drops and camphor, roasted banana, flambé crepe with Nutella. It’s cask strength, but you genuinely wouldn’t know it – this is about flavour, not strength.

Palate: Really reminiscent of the Dreamcask, so much so that it should really become an annual, relatively affordable release – flog 300 of these for 250 a pop one day a year, g’wan. Up front there is more fruit, those JR ice-lollies from the Eighties, rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding; it is dark, rich, deep, like meself. There is a lot of toffee, fudge, dark chocolate, hot chocolate with a drop of Baileys in it.

Finish: That zesty snap of the SPS spice fades slowly, and again a lot of notes reminiscent of the Dreamcask, that bergamot, the sweetness, the leather and tobacco wafting. A beautiful whiskey, and one that deserves to be shared with the world (stocks permitting). Is it automatically better than the standard 21? Not really. It’s great, but to me that 21 is the gold standard for Irish whiskey, SPS or SM or SG or blend or vatted malt or anything. It is accessible, widely available and an absolute beauty. That said, the 21CS could easily be the match of the Dreamcask, especially if it was released at a reasonable price and in a fashion that didn’t become a flipping free-for-all.

Aside from all my grumbling about the technical file, and the fact that it could do with some significant edits, if there is a way to open hearts and minds to our unnecessarily complicated indigenous style, then Redbreast is it. Forget the youthful SPS of Dingle, Teeling and impending ones from Great Northern, or even the multiplicity of well-aged Powers single casks, ain’t nobody got time for that. To hell with the Spot family, beautiful as they may be, because they are an even more confusing pitch than Redbreast. The smart money is on the priest’s whiskey. Redbreast was my epiphany, and look at me now, friendless and alone, writing sprawling thinkpieces on a minor category of whiskey. So here’s to our grains of future past, and to single pot still whiskey, whatever it once was, and whatever it may become.

Update 29/04/2019: Irish Distillers Limited have published a piece by Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett, the man who kept that single pot still flame alive for so long, and it goes into a lot of detail about the whys, hows, and wherewithals of the technical file. Well worth a read.

Altered states

A few years back, I was talking to a distiller about gin when Peter Mulryan came up in conversation. I asked what he thought of Mulryan’s approach to gin making – his wild experiments. The distiller admitted he admired Mulryan, but simply said ‘he’s gone too far’. It reminded me of Eddie Jessup, the scientist in Ken Russell’s Altered States – a voyager who had pushed the limits of what man should know. When I told Mulryan this recently, he laughed. Perhaps he was tickled by the irony of it – after all, we were at the launch of his latest madcap experiment, a gin distilled from Barry’s Tea. While it isn’t the first Irish gin to be infused with tea – contrary to popular opinion, Patrick Rigney’s Drumshanbo Gundpowder Gin is not made with gunpowder, but rather with gunpowder tea – it was Mulryan’s variation that caught the public eye. Mother’s ruin and mammy’s best friend, united as one. Mulryan had achieved the singularity. But it wasn’t an easy road.

Back in 2014 he had a revelation. In a short space of time leading up to this moment, his son got sick, he turned fifty and his father passed away. He realised life is short, too short to waste time doing anything other than what you love. So he took a leave of absence from his job with RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, and decided to become a distiller. He knew plenty about whiskey – he is the author of five books on the subject, along with the host of Midleton’s pot still promos. Along for the ride were three others, who all worked in the media with Mulryan. But there is a quantum leap from writing and talking about whiskey to actually making it, and the devils that plagued his earliest experiments were not technical, but bureaucratic.  

 

He got a unit in an industrial estate in Cappoquin, west Waterford, and set to work. From the outset there were problems – he brought in wash to distill poitin with, and Revenue stopped him. So he sold his second still and opted to focus on gin. But necessity is the mother of invention. He opted to push the boundaries of the category – after all, there are dozens if not hundreds of gins on the market here, thanks to the boom in distilling. Blackwater Distillery, as his firm is known, created a gin casked in juniper barrels, a strawberry gin, a hedgerow gin, a classic London dry gin, a navy-strength strawberry gin, and the most challenging of all, the Barry’s Tea gin. What made it challenging, according to Mulryan, was not a technical distilling detail, but just getting the Barry’s Tea company to come on board with his crazy idea. It took two years. As he points out, they are a private, family-owned business that is also a household name – they have a lot to lose, so thankfully they gained quite a bit, with the gin winning rave reviews and selling out in record time.

Mulryan also took part in the AIB Start-Up Academy, where the bank helped entrepreneurs with some of the nuts and bolts of keeping your business on the road. Obviously, he learned a lot, as Blackwater Distillery has made inroads into one of the biggest supermarket chains in Ireland. Their Boyle’s gin – in original and damson – along with Dolmen poitín and Woulfe’s vodka are on every Aldi shelf in Ireland, while they also manage to make vodka so good they can sell it to the Finns, as they won a contract to sell their product to Altia, Finland’s state-led drinks organisation.

The hard knocks of the first three years seem to be turning a corner, as Mulryan is now moving on to the second act.  To mark work starting on their new distillery, they are releasing a sourced whisky.  That isn’t a typo – Mulryan was of the new breed of distillers here to drop the E (Mark Reynier was the second), pointing out that it is more historically accurate. The Technical File which oversees the whiskey category allows it – so it was only a matter of time before someone did it. As he pointed out on the Blackwater Distillery blog: “For the past forty years it is true to say that Irish whiskey has been spelt without and ‘e’. But that spelling a legacy of monopoly, so as Ireland’s first whisky micro-distillery it seemed only right to mark ourselves apart from the multinationals, to look to tradition and along with dropping the ‘bs’ to drop the ‘e’.”

As for their new whisky, The Retronaut, it is the first of a series of curated releases while they get their distillery up and running, get stocks laid down and get a product to market in five to ten years time. It’s a 17 year old single malt, unpeated and matured 100% in bourbon wood – no caramel, no chill-filtering – with only 1160 bottles at 46%. The next iteration is due in spring next year. In the meantime, Mulryan is as busy as ever.

The development of his new distillery in Ballyduff is going to devour a million euro (breakdown of the funding here), but that will take it from being a pretty slice of 1950’s Americana (with asbestos roof) to state of the art three-still distillery and whiskey school (without asbestos roof). The reason it is a slice of Americana is that it was built in the 1950s by a returning emigrant, keen to start a hardware empire in west Waterford. When Mulryan bought the place, it was like a DIY Marie Celeste, an apothecary of obsolete engineering. It had to be gutted, but even then there wasn’t enough space, so they also bought another two lots – an open space alongside and a old convenience store beyond that, the last shop to close in Ballyduff, a village too sleepy to even keep a Spar going.

But with Mulryan’s business will come the visitors – the whiskey nerds, the tour buses, and the participants in his whiskey and gin schools. With the mass tourism power of Midleton just 50 minutes away to the west and the uber-nerd appeal of Reynier’s Waterford Distillery to the west, Mulryan’s mix of quaint charm, great backstory and zany ideas could make it a real draw over the next decade.

Before the big move from an ugly industrial unit to a beautiful restoration work, there has been one final boundary-pushing experiment – single batch whisky. Writing on his blog in June, Mulryan explained: “Each 50 litre cask of new make spirit starts life as approx. 500 litre batch of wort. Do the maths: one batch + two distillations = one cask. Now as each 50 litre cask takes the guts of a week to make, this isn’t a very economical way of making whisky. But on the up side as each batch is one of a kind, it means each mash bill can also be unique. So this is an experiment in taste and tradition.”

And where, you might ask, is the mashbill going to come from? “We will make the first 50 casks of single batch whisky ordered. Already 4 have gone; one to a Michelin Starred Chef, one to a banker, one to the company directors, and one to a rather stellar American pop type person. So only 46 left and when they’re gone, well you know the drill. As for the juice itself? We’re offering Single Malt, Pot Still Irish and some historic casualties. You know, mash bills that were in their day pot still whiskies, but now (thanks to the scandalous Irish pot still whisky GI) can no longer be called pot still (though they can still be Irish whisky).”

Like Eddie Jessup, Mulryan is a man not just in search of his true self, but also building a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses using flavour and spirit. The countdown to the third act has begun.