The Spirits Of Ireland – Whiskey Thoughts

Perhaps the most exciting event in Irish distilling for a quarter of a century is set to occur next year. Whiskey from and distilled at the 250 year old Kilbeggan Distillery is set to flow again.

The distillery was re-ignited formally on the 19th of March 2007, so since the Whiskey Act 1980 stipulates that Irish Whiskey cannot be sold until they have spent not less than three years in a warehouse in the State, or in Northern Ireland, we should be preparing our wallets from March onwards next year.

Happily, for anyone thinking of an exceptionally interesting Christmas present this year, the powerhouse of innovation that is Cooley Distilleries, the independent Irish distillery behind the Kilbeggan re-launch, there is something interesting afoot.

What is legal for them to sell, is the ongoing Spirit, which will latterly be the base for whiskey, but which cannot legally be defined as whiskey.

The Spirit of Kilbeggan is a tiny run of 1000 special box-sets, of three, six centilitre glass tubes for want of a better word, which contain the Spirit of Kilbeggan, we must emphasise for legal reasons, not, yet a whiskey.

Aged for one month, one year and two years, which should give anyone interested an insight into the final product that the maturing Spirit will achieve from its Kilbeggan Pot Still home.

It will be sold exclusively at the distillery in Kilbeggan itself and through specialist whiskey retailer, The Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson street, and its website The price is €20 for what will hopefully be a genuine heirloom of the re-ignition of a unique independent Irish whiskey industry.

The Rebirth of Irish Whiskey

The long shadow of one man, John Teeling falls across independent Irish whiskey in the 21st century.

Dr. John Teeling, is an Irish business icon, who today he heads up substantial business interests as diverse as diamond mining in Southern Africa and Connemara Mining discovering zinc in Limerick to his Persian Gold operation which is exploring for gold and copper deposits in Iran.

Back in 1970 he was at Harvard and wrote two doctoral papers on Irish business, in particular the disaster that was Irish whiskey, when the idea struck him that he could do much better than the current owners who controlled, indeed had a monopoly over Irish whiskey.

He set up to rival Irish Distillers and has done so effectively.

Last year, Cooley Distillery won the International and European Distillery of the Year Trophy at the IWSC, this year again they have taken the European Distillery of the Year gong. It is an almost unprecedented situation.

‘The Excise’

In Jim Murray’s A Taste of Irish Whiskey, the world’s leading whiskey writer, author of the annual Whiskey Bible, found that there were upwards of 2000 stills in Ireland at the end of the 18th century with perhaps almost 100 of these amounting to what might be described as whiskey making operations.

The reason for the vagueness about just how many whiskey producers there were in Ireland was down to a familiar issue, tax. Official records of how much whiskey was being produced and the reality are said to be highly divergent.

What we call Potin today was to some extent really, whiskey making gone underground after the introduction of excise on stills.

Whatever the true situation beyond the statistics, we can say with certainty that by the end of the 19th century there were around 30, large whiskey making operations scattered throughout the country, with most counties and bigger towns being possessed of one, much in the manner of English towns all having their own brewery.

Whiskey expert Heidi Donelon has perused the work of one Alfred Barnard, who was in the editorial team at the influential 19th century publication Harper’s Weekly Gazette. He took a tour of every operating distillery he could find in 1885. He tracked down 28 of them, producing hundreds of different whiskey offerings in every style and age.

These included Persse’s Distillery Nun’s Island, Galway, which was active near the present day Cathedral from 1815 to 1913. Walker’s Distillery, of Thomond Gate, Limerick City which was active from 1820 to 1919; Cassidy’s Distillery of Monasterevin in County Kildare who were operating from 1784 until 1921 and Nicholas Devereux Bishop’s Water Distillery in Wexford which was active from 1827 until around 1914.

Heidi Donelon has searched these out along with 24 other distilleries across the Republic.

Big Is Beautiful ?

The undoing of Irish whiskey was simple.

We bought into the idea that big, centralised semi-industrial production of giant branded spirits was the key to success over, small local, artisan production. And with annual healthy profits for multinational Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers operation, few accountants or banks would disagree, in their legal corporate domicile.

If we had not centralised distilling to Dublin and Cork, then Irish tourism and jobs market could be quite different and a great deal healthier, with every town having its own production, loyally supported by aficionados from Tramore to Tokyo and best of all visited by those fans.

Heidi Donelon is attempting to address one part of that issue.

“I created the Irish Whiskey Trail to fill an absolutely obvious need that I saw as I travelled around the world lecturing and presenting tastings on Irish Whiskey. When people think of Scottish Whiskey they think of where it is made, they think of and travel to hundreds of distilleries in incredibly scenic locations.” Says Donelon.

“But when I would finish a lecture, people just did not seem to think or associate, Ireland, as a whiskey destination.” Says Donelon, “So what I wanted to do and what I have tried to achieve in the Irish Whiskey Trail is to put a sort of map, a tour of Ireland from a whiskey perspective.”

“It is not a holiday website or tour site as such, I don’t run tours through the site, rather it is a place where you can download the map and explore Irish whiskey yourself.”says Donelon.

What she has produced is a very fine downloadable map from which you can print out. In addition the website also has plenty of information on the 28 distilleries that operated in 1885 and a good outline history of Irish whiskey.

Our Irish whiskey heritage is long, proud and diverse, with players like Cooley and John Teeling, and highly skilled craftspeople in Middleton and Bushmills, there is every prospect of a bright, diverse and local future beyond global brands too.

So, this Christmas when thinking about whiskey, indeed Irish whiskey, you might just want to explore a little further than the core big brands that dominate the market and see that slowly there is a bespoke, hand crafted and award winning set of possibilities.

Here are a selection of some of the finest whiskeys currently being produced in Ireland.

Top Ten Irish Whiskey Gifts

1. Redbreast 12-Year-Old Pure Pot Still (93) around €44.99

This shows just what superb levels of craftsmanship Irish Distillers craftsmen and women can pull off. This Pot Still whiskey, where you are essentially batch manufacturing just like in Cognac is gloriously complex confection. You need to spend time just inhaling the bouquet to reach the edges of the taste landscape it offers. On tasting you find touches of brioche, toasted on a grill, with melting acacia honey and soft butter streaming from its edges, spicy, exotic cinnamon, touches of vanilla and smooth toffee, leading to a warm, nutty, hot, but smooth finish.

2. Connemara, 12 Year Old Peated Single Malt (93) around €80

I have been astounded by this whiskey since I first tasted it some years back and it is a unique creation, a peated whiskey, it smells and tastes like the inside of a smoke filled white washed cottage on a windswept western seaboard. I have never failed to be transported to Roundstone on a wet, cold night after just one inhale of the bouquet. That of course is not where everyone wants to be, but if a roaring turf fire, yellow fisherman’s overalls completes the picture then this is your tipple. Winner of almost every award on offer, and Gold Medal winner again this year 2009 and best in class medal winner 2009.

3. Midleton Very Rare 2008 (92) €135

Now an annual fixture on many business Christmas present lists, the wooden box presentation and signature with barrel number have become the fetishist collectors items that IDL presumably had hoped for. The whiskey inside is not actually consumed as frequently as intended if my random snooping surveys of other peoples drinks cabinets are in any way representative. If they did you will find an amber delight, with an ultra smooth liquid caramel wash.

4. Green Spot, Mitchell & Son (91) around €44.95

The original Irish Icon whiskey, from Mitchell & Son, made by Irish distillers in a traditional pot still for Mitchells. It is a sweeter whiskey, with a delicious spiciness, a touch of malty creaminess in the finish.

5. Jameson 12 Year Old Special Reserve (91) around €35

Probably the best quality for the money in the Jameson portfolio, as at €35 in other words €8 dearer than the functional standard Jameson, it is a world apart, being made up of over two thirds of the blend of Pot Still whiskey and a goodly proportion of 20 year old whisky with a fine complex tone from time in Oloroso barrels. Superb and well priced.

6. Bushmills 10 Year-Old Single Malt (91) around €41.99

This is whiskey as a wall of sound. A rushing torrent of soft toffee, toasty cereal notes, spicy rich floral honey and even a touch of white pepper. It is a testament to the blending and ultra smooth distilling process that separates Irish from Scottish creations.

7. Tyrconnell 10 Year-Old Madeira Finish Single Malt (91) around €79

If you are looking to enter the more challenging world of fine, bespoke whiskies then this is an ideal gateway. It is very obvious here that something magical has occurred with the use of the barrels and it this could open a doorway to entire sub-world of different finishes in whiskey. Its an expensive world to explore, but happily there is a sale with a €10 in the Celtic Whiskey Shop at €64.

8. Connemara Peated Single Malt (90) around €39

The little sibling of the 12 year old stalwart award winner and a very enjoyable, complex array of favours too. A sort of watercolour version of the full on oil painting that is the 12 years old offering.

9. Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey (89) around €27.99

The cornerstone of the Cooley operation, not their best whiskey by any means, but a wonderfully enjoyable, butter and toasted brioche affair that I sometimes like to think of as the gateway between old fashioned Australian Chardonnay and Irish whiskey. A very well priced introduction to a world outside branded smoothness in Irish whiskey.

10. The Spirit of Kilbeggan, 3 Tube Limited Release (not really rateable) around €19.99

Ok, it is not legally a whiskey, but it is a spectacularly interesting offering and in the spirit of the season, an ideal present for anyone who is even the least bit interested in Irish history, native business ambition, whiskey or getting a jump on the next big thing, and frankly if someone does not fall under one of these categories, they deserve brown socks instead.

All Whiskies are available widely, in most Off Licences and Wine Shops nationwide and in chains such as O’Brien’s Wines nationwide; Molloys Liquor Stores, across Leinster and O’Donovan’s Off Licences, Cork City and county.

Except for

Green Spot – Mitchell and Sons, Mitchell & Son, CHQ, IFSC, Dublin 1, 54 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co Dublin and Marley Park Retail Centre, Grange Road, Rathfarnham.

The Spirit of Kilbeggan is exclusive to Kilbeggan Distillery Visitors Centre Kilbeggan, County Meath and at the Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson Street Dublin 2.

Email the wine column at