Lesson Five: Brown Spirits
Chapter Four: Whisky from the British Isles
The Irish Got There First
They say the British never remember and the Irish never forget. Our earliest records of northern European distillation tell us that the Irish might have been first to the still; while the Irish are fond of repeating this, the Brits and the Scots can be forgiven for not having committed this factoid to memory. Nonetheless, we can point to a 1495 writ granting permission to Irish Friar John Cor for the purchase of eight bolls of malt for the purposes, it appears, of distillation. For context’s sake, that’s enough malt to make a few hundred cases of modern day spirit, so the good father was clearly running a pretty good business.
But as noted in Lesson Three, the very idea that someone “invented” distillation is rather naïve; people know how to boil water and boiling beer (or malt) was a step that more or more were taking as the Dark Ages got brighter and folks got better lit. In 1360’s Germany, laws were passed proscribing schnapsteufel – the “schnapps devil”; schnapps’ unearthly alcoholic strength required some human, legal intervention.
Still, between the Irish and the Scots, there are so many connections that their histories are confused: Irish monks settling in present day Scotland likely brought along gifts: a new religion, a new language and pot stills as well. Both countries became vassals of the British Empire; both were taxed to the limit on their spirits.
The Wily Irish
But Ireland seemed to have gotten the better of its British masters for a time. By the turn of the last century, whisky in London was more likely to be Irish in origin than Scotch – there certainly wasn’t any “English” whisky to speak of, and only now are we seeing some developments in that direction. Like the Scots, the Irish had felt the boot of British oppression for centuries whether literally or through onerous taxation; the Brits for their part were frustrated by their seeming inability to collect “appropriate” taxes from these uneducated barbarians. Defying British taxes seemed not merely a strategy but a sport for the Irish. So the Brits more or less acknowledged failure to account for each gallon of spirit distilled, and adopted a new strategy in the late 19th century. They taxed each still regardless of capacity or production; let the infernal blokes try to weasel out of that.
The Irish accepted their fates and abandoned their stills, at least in the commercial sector. But in place of the small stills they had used before, they crafted enormous stills with huge capacity; and happily paid the tax per still.
The unintended consequence is that Irish stills, because they are so large, tend to make a more neutral spirit. Imagine that the spirit bangs around the inside of the still repeatedly, and the effect is similar to re-distillation. Well, at least, that’s a decent way to think about it. The bottom line is: Irish whiskies have traditionally been milder and less flavorful than, say, single malt Scotch whiskey. Of course, these sorts of generalizations are useful only to a point. Other aspects of Irish whiskies pertain as well: many have been triple distilled, providing more opportunities for congener removal (see Lesson Three – Distillation), meaning softer, milder spirits. And the malt used in Irish whisky has historically been roasted over coal fires. In Scotland, moist and vegetal peat has been the fuel, so their malt gets smoky, just like their whiskies. Even today, aside from Connemarra, Irish whiskey brands express little of Scotch’s smoky, salty note, though Irish whiskey has its own vegetal tang and even brine.
Success and Failure and Success
Irish whiskey built an international market out of those gentler attributes; a century ago, Irish whiskey sales far outstripped any other region’s whiskey sales, and they ruled the UK. But Ireland’s Easter Rebellion (1914-15) against the Crown broke out as the doughboys were being slaughtered on Flander’s Field in World War One; it was impossible for the English to see the Rebellion as anything more treasonous perfidy in England’s darkest hour. Irish whiskey would no longer find steady customers in England and, having lost its primary market, Irish whiskey never quite recovered. Sure, they might have set their sights on the U.S. market with so many of their brethren having emigrated there, but Prohibition put an end to those thoughts.
By the 1980’s there were only three working distilleries in Ireland. Today, there are four and talk of more. While it has taken nearly a century to recover, Irish whiskey is on a remarkable roll today – led by Jamo and Ginger, perhaps, but the numbers don’t lie. Americans are embracing Irish whiskey and the future has never looked brighter for the Irish. Do the Irish even know how to handle good news?
Scotch Got its Mojo
Even if we accept that Irish whiskey was the dominant iteration a century ago, Scotch has ruled for so long and so completely dominated the scene (other than one very successful American whiskey brand) that time and text are justified in understanding the styles and categories of Scotch whisky, so that we can understand what inspires the world’s other whiskey makers.
The first important lesson is to understand that once upon a time all Scotch was Single Malt Scotch Whisky: that’s to say, each Scotch was from one distillery only, distilled from barley in pot stills at least two times. Prior to 1823, nobody but the Scots drank it because the English wouldn’t allow most of it south of the border. The English were more interested in protecting their gin producers than in opportunities for a strange people who wore skirts, painted their faces and rebelled with annoying regularity. And didn’t pay their taxes. Same story, different ending.
This time, the English offered to Scotch distillers legal licenses for distillation and export. In 1823, they sold only a few licenses, but within a few years, smuggling arrests were down dramatically. Why risk jail time if a legal route to market is offered? The caveat for licensing was that excise officers were required to live, more or less, at your distillery, the better to limit your cheating tendencies. Even if a single distiller might accept such a burden, now all your neighbors had to go legit or shut down. George Smith of The Glenlivet lived under a hostile shadow the rest of his life for being one of the first to get a license. But by the mid 1800’s, Scotch distillers were learning to work within the system. But still, sales languished behind softer, milder, better established Irish whiskey.
In Scotland’s Lowlands were many of the distilleries that supplied English mouths with gin. It’s hard to say whose idea it was first to blend the Lowlands’ neutral grain spirit (we might call it vodka; they used it to distill with botanicals for gin) with more powerful Single Malt Whisky. But grocers were looking for brands to call their own; gin distillers were looking for a piece of a nascent market for Scotch whisky. Before long, names like Dewars, Chivas Brothers, Johnnie Walker and others were synonymous were a new kind of Scotch – blended Scotch whisky. Take a bit of Single Malt from this fellow and that; toss in your basic vodka, cut with water and Bob’s Your Uncle, you’ve got a whisky that you can slap your name upon and that’s cheaper to boot.
Some complained that this new drink was not Scotch at all, but some adulterated brew made by greedy grocers. In 1901, a London court determined that it was indeed Scotch whisky and that as long as the whisky was made in Scotland, virtually any product by any means was to be called Scotch. Before you vilify said court, think upon this: from that moment onward Scotch whisky began an inexorable rise to the top of the heap and now (unless you’re in the U.S.) if you ask for a glass of whisky, the world’s bartenders will reach for Scotch.
So amongst Scotch whiskies there are different types that reflect different styles and even bases: Blended Scotch Whisky, Blended Malt Whisky, Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Grain Whisky.
Single Malt Whisky: made only from barley and distilled in a pot still at a single distillery; distilled at fairly low levels.
Blended Malt Whisky: Single Malt Whiskies blended from several distilleries for complexity.
Grain Whisky: a whisky from corn, wheat or any other grain but barley that is usually distilled in column stills to proof levels close to vodka, so the whiskies are fairly neutral and mild.
Any of these Scotch whiskies must be aged for at least two years in barrels. Most will be aged for eight to twelve years, and whiskies aged beyond this point will be bottled and sold at high prices. But age is no indication of excellence; the best Scotch whisky you’ve ever tasted may be aged twelve years or less; it’s really in the mouth of the beholder. Additionally, some whiskies just taste better younger; it’s the rare whisky that doesn’t begin to taste overly spicy, woodsy and dry when aged for more than twenty-five years. Again, it depends upon the whisky, the barrel, the warehouse and your own palate preference.
Any of these Scotch whiskies must be aged for at least two years in barrels. Most will be aged for eight to twelve years, and whiskies aged beyond this point will be bottled as such as sold for higher prices. The best may be aged only a decade or so; other great whiskies may be aged for far less, but age is no indication of excellence. The best Scotch whisky you’ve ever tasted may be aged twelve years or less; it’s really in the mouth of the beholder. Some whiskies just taste better younger; it’s the rare whisky that doesn’t begin to taste overly spicy, woodsy and dry when aged for more than twenty-five years. Again, it depends upon the whisky, the barrel, the warehouse and your own palate preference. The important lesson to be drawn is that there is no single age that is ideal. It depends upon the region, the style, the barrels, the luck of the draw, but also your palate, the flavors that matter to you. It’s wholly subjective and always has been. Yes, we can taste certain whiskies and argue that some are more complex than others, and that they have more flavors and aromas but we can’t really argue whether someone should like it or not. People either do or they don’t. It’s personal as well as temporal: they might change their minds though most people don’t much.
A Few More Whiskies
We’ve already explained that whisky is made from beer, distilled and then aged in barrels. So if you can make beer, you can make whisky and some people do it quite well. The rest of the Europe is getting into the act: Wales and France have already offered remarkable aged spirits.
Japan is far ahead of the pack. For almost a century, a group of passionate, or more accurately, obsessed distillers brought the practice of distillation back from Scotland; we can’t say precisely when they got good at it, but based upon the evidence at hand (truly great and distinctive whisky) the Japanese have some mad skilled distillers.
Please click on the videos below to see BAR Master Ryan Maybee make some Whiskey and Whisky cocktails for you.
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Rob Roy.
In mixing glass add;
2 oz Blended Scotch Whiskey
1/2 oz Sweet Vermouth
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
3 to 4 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Add ice and stir
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with lemon zest
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make an Irish Coffee.
Preheat coffee cocktail mug with hot water
Poor water out and add;
1 sugar cube
1.5 oz Jameson Irish Whiskey
Fill with 4oz or so of coffee leaving room for whipped cream
Blood and Sand
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Blood and Sand.
Blood and Sand
In mixing glass add;
3/4 oz Blended Scotch
3/4 oz Sweet Vermouth
3/4 oz Orange Juice
3/4 oz Cherry Heering
Add ice and shake well
Strain into cocktail glass
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Blackthorn.
Now you can click on the “Lesson Six – Liqueurs” button below to continue your lessons on how alcohol beverages are made.