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Monday, 9 May 2011

Hot Pot


The whisk(e)y business is constantly evolving. New bottle shapes seem to be popping up everywhere, new finishing and maturation techniques are being employed and every so often there are even brand new distilleries announced, pumping out spirit with gusto, from tens of millions of litres, to those filling single digit numbers of casks a day.

But it isn't every day that a whole new category is launched.

As we know, the growth of Single Malt Scotch Whisky is not to be ignored, even if the market is still underpinned by huge sales of Blended Whisky, both at home and abroad. In Scotland, the distinction between Single Malts and Blends is guarded in legislation written and passed by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and published in their latest 2009 regulations.

As you can see from the diagram above, taken from the 2009 regulations document, it is all fairly straightforward with Scotch. If the word “malt” or "grain" appears on a bottle of Scotch, it refers to the fact that no less than 100% of the ingredients is either Malted Barley or Grain; hence the terms Single Malt or Single Grain whisky.

A short hop over the sea to Ireland and things become very different. In 1682, Ireland was ruled by a British Government who, in trying to keep its grip on the unruly country, introduced a Malt Tax. As a result, many Irish distillers of the day hit back by making their whiskey with a mixture of malted and (non-taxable) un-malted barley, giving whiskey produced in Ireland its own unique flavour profile.

This means that in Ireland there are four different styles of whiskey made; Single Malt (example, Bushmills 10yo), Single Grain (example, Greenore 8yo), Blended (example, Jameson) and Pure Pot Still (example, Red Breast). The expression least familiar to Scotch drinkers would be "Pure Pot Still", a term used to refer to Irish Whiskeys triple distilled only in copper pot stills, from a mash made using mixture of malted and un-malted barley.

Why shouldn't the Irish have a definitive category which draws a real distinction between Blended, Single Malt or Single Grain whisky and that produced only in a Copper Pot Still using both malted and un-malted barley? The middle of the Venn diagram between Single Malt / Single Grain and Blended, if you like. A category that can do for this style of Irish whiskey, what Single Malt has done for Scotch. And so, in April 2011 the term "Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey" was introduced, creating a more definitive, new category of Irish Whiskey and replacing the little used term "Pure Pot Still".

Still with us? If not, click here.

("every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain")

One does wonder, with the introduction of the "single" moniker by the chaps down at Midleton, if we'll see any of the blends, all made on the one site, labelled "Single Blended Whiskey"...??

As a result of the new term Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey, Irish Distillers, owners of the Midleton Distillery in Cork have decided to expand two new whiskeys into this range and rejuvenate three others which were already in the now renamed Pure Pot Still category.

Getting a make over are the excellent Red Breast 12yo & 15yo as well as Green Spot, a whisky which has been produced exclusively for the Mitchell Family, wine brokers from Dublin, since the 1800's. All three of these whiskeys are at the very top of our list of favoured Irish drams, so it is fantastic to see a greater emphasis put on these releases. It has also been announced by Alex Ricard, CEO of Irish Distillers, that there will be additions to the range within the year-possibly older versions of Red Breast (?) and other extensions to the 'Spot' range. Although yet to be confirmed, the prospect has got us very excited at Caskstrength HQ.

Let's take a look at the Red Breast 12yo and the Green Spot whiskeys:

Red Breast - 12 Years Old - Single Pot Still - 40% ABV

Apparently 27% of the whiskey in this offering is matured in first fill sherry barrels

Nose: Honey, dry wood and oak, sherry tones. Still a little green on the nose, but that is probably because we're so used to the more mature 15 Year Old. The aroma dies down with dark chocolate liquours and a wiff of red flowers in bloom.

Palate: Light spices, some cherry notes, toasted pine nuts, hazelnuts all underpinned by some very light but juicy tropical fruit juices.

Finish: Those light wood spices again, some copper tones, ginger and digestive biscuits.

Overall: An excellent offering from the folk at Midleton. This has always jostled for position with Green Spot for our number two Pot Still Whiskey behind Red Breast 15yo.

Green Spot - NAS - Single Pot Still - 40% abv

traditionally released in very small batches and hard to find, Green Spot has been given a new lease of life with a new bottle and, for the first time, a box as well.

Nose: Freshly cut pine, strong vanilla tones which support orchard fruits.

Palate: Very grainy initially, with licorice chews, stewed soft fruits, a big hit of light curry spices ending with cardamon and fennel.

Finish: Dry oakiness with increased licorice, the same spices as the palate yet also with crushed almonds and hazelnuts.

Overall: A fantastic whiskey, which we wish was more widely available and at a cheaper price - we just bought a bottle for nearly £40. A lot of money for a No Age Statement whiskey.

Onto a brace of brand new releases from the Midleton distillery. Powers is a hugely popular whiskey in Ireland and this release commemorates the original 'spiritual home' of the Powers distillery on John's Lane in Dublin. The whiskey has a high proportion of first fill bourbon cask influence, as well as a a smattering of Oloroso sherry casks thrown in for good measure.

Powers - John's Lane Release - 12yo - 46% abv - NCF

Nose: Very heavy on the nose initially, with all-spice, dark honey, dried apricots and damsons.

Palate: Sweet cereal notes hit the palate first, followed by a very juicy fresh fruit salad (apples, bananas and a hint of tropical fruit, similar to an aged grain whiskey)

Finish: Creamy swathes, which linger on the palate and a return of some of the fruity notes.

Overall: A welcome edition to the Powers range, highlighting the differences in the spirit. This is a very different beast to that of the Red Breast and the Green Spot.

The final whiskey pays homage to an Irish whiskey legend, Barry Crockett, Midleton's Master Distiller responsible for developing the character of Midleton and helping bring it to a wider audience. This bottling includes a selection of first fill bourbon casks hand picked by Mr Crockett and also the inclusion of whiskey matured in unseasoned American oak.

Midleton - Barry Crockett Legacy - First Batch - 46% - limited to around 2500 bottles

Nose: Peppery, with pronounced citrus notes (grapefruit), gooseberries, passion fruit and a hint of wet cardboard.

Palate: More of the passion fruit, with a crisp zesty top note, some sweet cereal notes and a light creaminess. Exceedingly well balanced.

Finish: The sweet fruits linger, with hints of fizzy cherry drops and more of the creamy cereal.

Overall: Brilliantly put together, this whiskey in particular demonstrates how the category of single pot still Irish whiskey can develop into something with a distinct voice of its own.

The Single Pot Still category is set to grow over in the immediate future and, according to Alex Ricard, over the next 22 Years. Big plans indeed. As always with whiskey, consistency will be the key and if the SPS category can feature a range of price and availability, it could well become established as a new dawn in Irish Whiskey.