Wednesday 4 May 2011

Review: Whiskey, by Maurice Walsh

The last IWS tasting was too crammed full of newsworthy incident to cover in a single article. I didn't mention, for example, that the tasting took place in The Old Jameson Distillery, Dublin. Or that the guest of honour that night was Barry Walsh, master blender at Irish Distillers until 2004. Or that we tasted... oops, can't mention that one until tomorrow!

Why was Barry Walsh there? Well, Barry's grandfather is Maurice Walsh, whom I knew in school as the author of Blackcock's Feather and whom the movie world knows as the writer of The Quiet Man short story. Before Maurice turned to penning fiction, he was an Excise Officer, working the distillery beat. Pre-Independence, he worked in Scotland, post-Independence, in Dublin.

Those were the days when the excise men kept a much sharper eye on the whole whiskey-making process than they do now so Maurice gained a rare insight into the secrets of both Scottish single malt and Irish pot still whiskeys. Knowledge became appreciation, and that's where we come in. In 1941, for the Dublin literary journal, The Bell, Maurice wrote an homage to whiskey.

Seventy years later, Ken Mawhinney, of the Irish Whiskey Society, has rescued the article from obscurity and republished it in a fine, limited edition run of 95 copies. We may not be able to taste the whiskeys of that era but we have this rare, first-hand account from someone who did, and who knew what he was drinking.

Ken Mawhinney, launching the new publication
A first reading gives the impression of a drinker who has found himself on the wrong side of progress and changing tastes. He rails against the practice of blending, ie mixing the old, heavier pot still spirit with lighter grain spirit that has been tapped off of a column still to produce that "fairly palatable, wholly undistinguished commercial article that we call 'Scotch'." Barry Walsh, in the Afterword, describes this view as "old-fashioned".

Of course it is, in the sense that Irish whiskey went down exactly the same road just a few decades later. But I think today's aficionado can recognise a kindred spirit in Maurice. Look at this paragraph:
I would like to see our very able distillers more daringly experimental. They make a very fine standard whiskey and are satisfied to stick to that come hell or high water. Why not experiment with an occasional run of the still in search of bouquets to please discriminate but varying palates? I often wonder what a Jameson or a Power would taste like if distilled at, say, 40° over-proof, reduced in store to 15° over-proof, and warehoused in a sherry cask for ten years. I suppose I'll never know.
You should hear members of the Irish Whiskey Society grilling industry insiders on the minutiae of manufacture, and clamouring for small runs of assertive, cask strength, unfiltered and unblended whiskeys. We are in Maurice's camp, no doubt about it. And, what's interesting, so are the distillers now too. Cooley produces a remarkable range of flavours from its stills and casks, and has recently brought a new boutique distillery on stream to experiment further. Irish Distillers is, as we speak, relaunching and expanding its unblended offerings in runs as small as a single cask.

The reprinted article stands as a reminder of a distinguished distilling history. This heritage is not an invention of marketing; Maurice can bear witness to the quality of whiskey in these islands right back to the beginning of the 20th Century. In this new century we are starting to appreciate what we have again, just like Maurice did 70 years ago. Whiskey is a connection to our past. Thanks to Ken Mawhinney, that connection is now a little stronger.

The publication, including foreword by Ken and afterword by Barry Walsh, will be available via the Irish Whiskey Society for, if memory serves me right, €19.