Tuesday 30 March 2010

Pure Pot Still Tasting

There was a touch of Willy Wonka throwing open the doors to the chocolate factory at last week's whiskey society meeting. We didn't quite get to see the Oompa Loompas or the river of whiskey inside Irish Distillers' Midleton plant but we did get the next best thing: Master Distiller Barry Crockett. He came to Dublin and very generously spent hours talking to us about pure pot still whiskey and the distilling business generally.

Anticipation was heightened by the sight of a few unbranded bottles as we entered the room. The samples turned out to be as follows:
  • New Make Spirit: IDL triple distils which bumps the alcohol content up to 85%. It also reduces the levels of heavier oils and alcohols while enhancing the ester compounds that produce the distinctive fruity aroma of spirit straight off the still.

    This particular spirit was the lightest that Midleton produces. One interesting fact disclosed by Barry is that they produce a range of pot still spirits, each destined for a different whiskey. I hadn't realised the importance of this variable to the distinctiveness of each of IDL's brands.

    The spirit had the usual ripe pear aroma but it was softer and more rounded than others I've tried. Apparently nosing the spirit is enough for quality control at the distillery but I did take a few sips. Surprisingly drinkable, even at 85%, it becomes quite pleasant with a bit of water. It's quality poteen. Just a shame it's not sold as such.

    This spirit is filled into casks at a watered down 63% ABV.

  • 12yo Bourbon-matured: This was the same raw spirit we had just tried, matured for 12 years in an ex-Bourbon barrel.

    You would expect plenty of vanilla off a Bourbon barrel and indeed this was present on the nose along with a mild toasted wood aroma. The taste was not too woody with a strong hit of sweeteness after about 15 seconds.

    As a whiskey, it's decent, if unremarkable. Coming straight from the cask it was somewhere around the 60% ABV mark.

  • 12yo Sherry-matured: The same raw spirit again, this time matured for 12 years in an ex-Sherry cask. These casks are made for Midleton and rented to an Oloroso Sherry maker in Spain prior to use in Ireland.

    Barry commented that even if you take away the effect of the Sherry or Bourbon from these casks that the European or American origin of the oak would itself result in a big difference in the matured whiskey.

    Some in the room raved about this whiskey. For me, whiskey should smell and taste like whiskey. When, as in this case, it smells and tastes strongly of Sherry, I don't go for it. Might as well drink Sherry.

  • Redbreast 12yo: Of course IDL doesn't sell solely Bourbon- or Sherry-matured pure pot still whiskeys. Instead they vat them together to produce Redbreast and Green Spot.

    My tastebuds were pretty shot at this point after the raw spirit and cask-strength whiskeys so the Redbreast 12yo came across as lighter than it would normally.

  • Redbreast 15yo: This has the advantage over the 12yo version of being bottled at 46% (not 40%) and of not being chill-filtered. This I could taste. I said above I was not particularly taken by either of the 12yo single cask whiskeys. Vatted together in the right proportion though, it's a different story. This is a wonderful whiskey and a great demonstration of the blender's art. Very much more than the sum of its parts.

  • Green Spot: This is the other pure pot still whiskey in the IDL portfolio. I always wondered if Redbreast was an older version of Green Spot with perhaps a different ratio of Sherry to Bourbon. Now I know it's more than that. Green Spot is based on a heavier pot still spirit so it's different from the outset.

    At 40% though it was still a bit light for me to properly taste on the night.
Trying these whiskeys would have made for a very worthwhile evening but Barry also spoke at length about the tradition of whiskey-making in this country, how the old methods compare to today's, and the myriad of considerations that make distillation a craft as much as an industry.

I'll have more remarks to make on Irish Distillers and the effect of hearing from true experts and enthusiasts like Barry Crockett later. In the meantime I'd like to thank Barry for taking the time to share his knowledge, and Jennifer and Brendan from IDL who made it happen.