A number of months ago Tourism Ireland hosted an online event and tasting, in which it showcased some of Ireland’s tastiest exports. We received a hamper of goodies from Taste Ireland (including Irish “shamrock” flavoured crisps, biscuits and tea) and four bottles of alcohol to try: Jameson Black Barrel, Bushmills Black Bush, Teeling BlackPitts, and Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin.
The hosts of the event were “Irish Whisky 360“, which is a brand run by the Irish Whiskey Association, and a number of friendly folks Zooming in all the way from Ireland – William Lavelle (Director of the Irish Whiskey Association), Lauren McMullan (Bushmills), Martin Lynch (Teeling) and Connor O’Brien (Drumshanbo). We also had an Australian representative from Pernod Ricard, Abbie, join us to talk about Jameson.
Irish whisky and spirits was almost wiped out
Irish whiskey dates back to the 1400s. Irish monks, probably needing a break from all that sacramental wine, distilled a simple kind of beer and the product was a fiery liquid they called the “water of life”.
It may seem quite normal in 2022 to have lots of different Irish whiskies and spirits to choose from, but the Irish spirits industry was almost wiped out in the 1920s.
England closed its doors to Irish whiskey after the Irish won their independence in the Irish War of Independence which lasted from 1919 to 1921. The United States era of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 meant that even Americans could no longer legally buy Irish whiskey, and so within the space of about a decade Irish whiskey lost its two most important export markets.
The Scots were also gaining market share by making whisky that many around the globe found palatable – the approachable “blended whisky”, made from softer grain whisky using the Coffey still. This type of still allowed a whisky maker to produce lots of whisky very quickly, but it was an invention shunned by many in Ireland at the time who preferred to stick with using traditional pot stills to make whisky. Brands such as Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky soon dominated the globe. Even one of the remaining whiskey makers in Ireland, Jameson, was started by Scotsman John Jameson when he went to Dublin in the 17th century to set up a distillery.
When Prohibition ended and the Americans were allowed to drink booze again (assuming, of course, the law abiding masses abstained to begin with), Scotland was in the enviable position of being able to meet demand from the United States.
It took about a century for the Irish spirits industry to be revived to what we see today. Now, I’m told there are about 40 distilleries in Ireland joining the likes of Bushmills, Middleton (who make Jameson) and some others.
Tasting four Irish gems
Now, about a century after the Irish spirits industry was almost wiped out, four bottles of alcohol from four Irish distilleries – Bushmills, Middleton, Teeling and Drumshanbo – sit on my table. Lets explore some of these spirits that are coming out of the revived Irish spirits industry.
Jameson Black Barrel
The story goes that one winter in Ireland empty barrels were left outside in the cold as there was not enough room in the warehouse to house them. Being outside and exposed to the elements, the wood lost its life and it needed to be reinvigorated. One way to reinvigorate wood, and unlock its flavours, is through charring the wood to a toasty black. The name “Black Barrel”, I’m told, is from these blackened charred barrels. The story is a bit mysterious and was not fully explained (it was not clear if these particular reinvigorated barrels gave Jameson any light bulb moment), but the main point is that Jameson seems to like how charred barrels made its whiskey taste and so they decided to make “Black Barrel”, which spends some time in re-charred barrels.
Jameson “Black Barrel” is a blended whisky which includes ex-sherry and ex-bourbon whiskies, and it incorporates unmalted barley to give the profile some spiciness. The distillery, Middleton, sits at the bottom of Ireland.
My tasting notes:
Nose: Vanilla, caramel, and toffee
Taste: Dried fruit, caramel and very clean underlying ethanol. This is a clean light spirit driven whiskey, with those caramels coming from the charred American oak ex-bourbon barrels and the dried fruits coming from the ex-sherry casks. This offering seems to be a bit heavier on the caramels and wood smoke than the standard Jameson, which makes sense as these characteristics are typical of charred ex-bourbon barrels.
Bushmills Black Bush
The Bushmills distillery is situated on the north coast of Ireland in the village of Bushmills, which has a population of about 1,500 people. It has been distilling whiskey there for approximately 400 years since being granted its licence in 1608. For whiskey production water is drawn from the river which flows through the village.
Dating back to 1898 when it was known as “Bushmills Special Old Liqueur”, the “Black Bush” name was trademarked on 18 March 1975 and adopted shortly after as the name of this whiskey.
Black Bush is a blended whiskey which is triple distilled. Whilst it is a blend, I’m told the whiskey has a high proportion of malt whiskey (80% of it is malt whiskey from Bushmills and the remaining 20% is grain whiskey which is made from corn and sourced from the Middleton distillery). Black Bush is aged for a minimum of 8 years in ex-sherry Antonio Perez casks from Spain.
My tasting notes:
Nose: Aromatic, lightly floral with raisin from the ex-sherry casks.
Taste: Light with a silky mouth feel, dried fruits and raisins from the ex-sherry casks, pear and green apple from the Bushmills spirit. The Oloroso casks give the whiskey’s profile a lovely drying nutty finish, and hints of dried fruit. The whiskey is young, but the underlying spirit is clean and bitey.
I really enjoy this whiskey and it is probably one of the best bang for buck whiskies on the market, alongside Johnnie Walker Black Label.
Unlike Middleton and Bushmills, Teeling is, comparatively speaking, a fairly recent arrival on the Irish whiskey scene. It has 3 stills – Alison, Natalie and Rebecca – each named after Teeling’s 3 daughters.
Teeling “BlackPitts” is a peated single malt which is triple distilled. The name “BlackPitts” comes from an area behind the distillery, which is a fitting name for a peated malt because it imbues images of tar. The whiskey itself is distilled to 55 PPM (the triple distillation drops the phenol content).
Whilst all peat gives whisk(e)y a smoky flavour, not all peat tastes the same. There is the typical profile you would expect from some Scottish peated single malt from Islay, such as a strong “iodine” and “medicinal” flavour profile (eg, Laphroaig). Then, there is this Teeling peated whiskey which gives off more of a smokey barbecue vibe.
My tasting notes:
Nose: Apple, honey, and faint smoke.
Taste: Honey, vanilla, caramel, and soft peat smoke (barbecue smoke), toffee, pears and pineapple. The ex-Sauternes casks gives the whiskey a lovely sweetness to offset the smoke, and it works beautifully.
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin
A post on a revived spirits industry would not be complete without gin, which is super fashionable these days. Drumshanbo gin makes use of 12 botanicals to flavour its Irish grain based neutral grain spirit (one of these is meadowsweet, which I’m told is indigenous to the region).
Despite its name, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no gunpowder in this gin and it has no connection with gunpowder proof rum. One of the botanicals used in the gin is “gunpowder tea”, which is green tea that has been dried and rolled into pellets. This gives the gin some spice.
The gin tastes of fresh citrus, grapefruit and was very fragrant.
finally, don’t forget to enjoy your whiskey with some snacks
Any post on Irish spirits would not be complete without mentioning delicious snacks which they can be enjoyed with – the Keogh’s Irish steak, truffle butter and shamrock flavoured crisps were my favourites.
Thanks for reading! Sláinte!