Whiskeys: Irish and Irish-Style
Recently, we had the great pleasure—my business partner, Doug Sacarto, and I—of talking whiskey at the annual Celtic Fest in Frederick, Colorado. The festival organizers set up a tasting with four whiskeys: two Scotch and two Irish. We had four tasting classes with about 15 people each, and the participants’ whiskey knowledge ranged from absolute beginner to true aficionados. One gentleman actually was a chemist researching new techniques for barrel maturation. They were great folks to teach and to learn from. One thing I learned is that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about exactly what Irish whiskey is.
Irish Whiskey Types
Let’s start with the fact that there basically are four types of Irish whiskey.
Single Malt. The term “single” means that the whiskey was distilled in a single distillery. This term is used the same in both Scotland and Ireland. Next, for it to be a single malt, it must be distilled in a pot still using 100% malted barley. This process produces whiskeys that are very flavorful and, to some tastes, can be likened to Scotch. One of the most recognizable Irish single malts in the U.S. is Bushmills. Bushmills is also the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland (1608).
Single Pot Still. Once again the term single means it was made in one distillery. In this case, however, the recipe (or mash bill) must contain at least 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley; the remaining 40% is up to the distiller. Most typically the secondary grain is corn. An old term that you will occasionally still see is Pure Pot Still. Just drop the word Pure and add Single in its place and you’re up to speed. As the title indicates, a pot still must be used. A good example of this style is Redbreast 12 Year Old Single Pot Still from the Midleton Distillery, in County Cork, Ireland.
Single Grain. From the word “single,” we know this whiskey comes from a single distillery. However, the big change here is the type of still used. Rather than a pot still, the distiller employs a Coffey still, also commonly referred to as a column or continuous still. The recipe also usually differs, as there must be 30% malted barley, plus any other types of grains in whatever proportions the distiller chooses. Grain whiskey typically has a higher percentage of alcohol (ABV) than the two made with pot stills.
Blended. This whiskey simply is a mixture of any two or more of the other three types of Irish whiskeys. Today there are more blended Irish whiskeys than any other type. A great example is Teeling Whiskey, Small Batch.
It’s important to note that products labeled as Irish whiskey must be distilled on the island of Ireland (just as Scotch must be distilled in Scotland). A whiskey can be distilled in the U.S. like an Irish product, but cannot be labeled as Irish whiskey. But it’s possible to obtain approval for labeling as “Irish-style” whiskey. One, and perhaps the only, whiskey available today with that designation is Black Bear Irish Style Whiskey made in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, at the Black Bear distillery. Owner and Head Distiller Victor Matthews says he succeeded after a two-year struggle to get his label approved by U.S. and Irish regulatory bodies because his production techniques so closely parallel those of distillers in Ireland. The designation is a sensitive subject for the Irish.
Victor explains his approach:
We use malted barley, but just as the Irish—at least since 1692 when the British instituted the Malt Tax—we also use un-malted barley. We rely on smokeless fuels for malting and distilling, eliminating all aspects of smokiness and peat that would be present in a Scotch, and we employ corn to finish out our mash bill.
So, how is his whiskey different? Victor says, “Well, we try not to be different because the point is to make an American Irish-style whiskey that honors our heritage and closely duplicates the greatest products of our ancestral home.”
Check out this whiskey and I believe you will heartily agree with Victor. To learn more about the Black Bear distillery, its whiskeys and other craft spirits, see our Guidebook to Whiskey and Other Distilled Spirits in Colorado, New Mexico & Wyoming (pp. 136-137).