All about making whisky
While the concept of regions doesn’t strictly exist in Ireland, Irish whiskies always stand out in comparison to other whiskies with their inimitably mellow, fruity style.
For over 30 years, Old Bushmills, Ireland’s oldest distillery and Midleton, its youngest and most technologically advanced distillery, co-existed within the Irish Distillers group, bought out by Pernod Ricard in 1987. This virtual monopoly came to an end in 2006 when Diageo took the Bushmills distillery off Pernod Ricard’s hands, thereby enabling healthy competition between these two distilleries, both worthy representatives of Ireland. The competition was notched up a gear in 1987 with the opening of the independent Cooley distillery by John Teeling.
With the exception of a handful of Scottish distilleries, triple distillation is exclusive to the Bushmills and Midleton distilleries. In reality, only the distillation tails that are heavier and oilier than the rest are distilled three successive times in the wash still, the low wine (feint) and the spirit still. Higher in alcohol content, low wines are obtained from the first distillation stage and are stored before being added to the third still. During the second distillation stage, the tails, weak feints, are set aside to be incorporated into the next distillation stage.
The spirit produced from the second still (strong feints) has an alcohol content of 70%. It too is then stored before undergoing a final distillation that separates the heads and tails from the middle cut. The new make spirit, used to create the final whiskey, has an alcohol content of around 85%. Rich in distillation heads, it is particularly fruity.
The Bushmills distillery
Ubiquitous in Ireland, peat is nevertheless rarely used in barley drying. Only the Cooley distillery to the north of Dublin produces a twice-distilled peated single malt. At Bushmills, north of Belfast and Midleton, near Cork, green malt (germinated barley) is dried by blowing hot air into closed ovens to prevent odours from the fuel seeping into the malted barley.
The Midleton distillery
Originally made from a blend of grains (malted and unmalted barley, oats, wheat, rye), pure pot still is the most traditional Irish whiskey. While oats, wheat and rye are no longer used, Midleton continues to perpetuate the tradition, with Bushmills having opted to produce single malts at the end of the 19th century. The intense fruitiness (berries, tropical fruits) and the spicy character of pure pot still result from the 40% to 50% unmalted barley content. Midleton produces three types of pure pot still: light, medium/modified and heavy. The higher the percentage of distillation tails contained in the middle cut, the richer and fuller the whiskey.
In order to consolidate the unique, cultural identity of these whiskeys and to highlight the fact that they are all currently made in the Midleton distillery, in 2011 an additional title was created: Single Pot Still, designed to bring the whiskeys up to the same level as Scottish single malts.
In the mid-19th century, in order to compete with the success of cheap Scottish blends, the Irish turned to large pot stills to produce their whiskey. The old Midleton distillery was once home to the world’s biggest still. Boasting a capacity of 140,000 litres, the still operated until 1975.
Irish distilleries are still equipped with ‘giant’ stills (on average six times bigger than Scottish stills), in which only the most volatile alcohol vapours reach the lyne arm before being condensed. The resulting distillate is refined and light.
The Midleton stills
Irish distillers are masters in the art of ‘vatting’, or blending. At Bushmills and Midleton, single malts and pure pot stills of different ages and types are blended with grain alcohols with a high percentage of corn. Bushmills Black Bush, with 80% malt, is a spectacular example of the quality of Irish blends.
In the early 1970s, the Irish took a closer look at the question of ageing. The emphasis was placed on using first-fill bourbon or sherry barrels and specific finishing stages (port, madeira). One of the great success stories is a Bushmills aged entirely in rum barrels, with an amazing fruity-spicy exotic character.