A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey, by Fionnán O’Connor, 224 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-1864707236
If water was whiskey and I was a duck
I’d jump to the bottom and never come up.
Popular ballad, as quoted in Ciaran Carson’s Last Night’s Fun
With drops of it going for over €500 at auction and David Beckham selling oversized perfume bottles full of it, perhaps it’s time someone told you how to distinguish your whisky from your whiskey and more importantly, introduced your taste buds to the single drink that will soon be on everyone’s lips; Irish single pot still whiskey.
A Glass Apart is the companion piece to the pot still revival, and O’Connor the ideal tippling companion; bar stool raconteur turned distillery don, erudite, passionate and crackling with enthusiasm for this bewitching drink whose tale he tells so well and with good humour: “If it’s a swelteringly hot day and you feel like having your Redbreast on the rocks, you’re not going to bring about the apocalypse. But please, do it in private because it breaks my heart to see.”
It is an underground history of Dublin and Ireland that flows down streams of whiskey from the Poddle to the trickle of the last few bottles in a cellar under Fitzwilliam Lane and on to where it rises again from the sherry barrels where it has sat quietly coming of age. This is the story of barley seeping deep in Inishowen bog holes and of streams of whiskey flaming down Dublin streets in the 1875 “Liberties Whiskey Fire”. From Alexandria to Andalusia then back by alembic swerves to the Liberties and Marrowbone Lane, O’Connor’s telling is as spry as a glass of Power’s John’s Lane and as welcome as a warming tot of Redbreast in November. But as he begins his tale: “in order to make whiskey you have to make beer”.
You will have noticed by now that the standard trio of beer taps in your local has sprouted to a dozen or more, with a standing army of many-hued bottles in the cooler behind. What was once cold-filtered-to-hide-the-taste homogenous beer can now be a Dungarvan stout, an Indian Pale Ale from Galway or an Old Rosie English cider. Bubbling up through nearly all these liquids is a fierce dedication to the craft of brewing, which with the floodgates now open, collects far from James’s Gate.
While the craft beer revolution has been flowing through the nation’s taps, a singular, copper-stilled and oak-matured tipple has been sitting patiently in its barrels waiting to once again release the magic of pure pot still whiskey. Along with it is the story of an Irish taxation system that near sucked the life out of the craft, a visit by the elder Kennedy in preparation for the ending of Prohibition and the story of the Scotch that unseated Irish whiskey as the world’s tipple.
In its golden age in the late nineteenth century, “Irish pure pot still” was the tipple of the empire, outselling Scotch three cases to one and employing a bevy of distillers and blenders, coopers and drivers, taxmen, barmen, waiters and bottle-washers. Daniel O’Connell’s campaigns were funded by it, the Powers family used it for their own peculiar class of Catholic emancipation and Tim Finnegan – he of the song and later the novel – lay with a barrel of it at his head ‑ most likely as distilled by Roes of Thomas St.
Pure pot still is as far as you could get from the blended “triple distilled for smoothness” you were long told was Irish whiskey. Pot still is not “smooth”. It has “a full-bodied density” cut with “a glorious, bristling pot still spice […] At its richest, this pot still spice rolls itself luxuriously across the tongue as it bristles with its own uncompromising texture. It grips the palate with its rich unforgettable prickle and then, in reflection of its own sad history, lingers long after it seemed to disappear.”
But thanks to one small firm of wine distributors and a unique group of dedicated tipplers, it did not dry up completely. And it is about to make a comeback from the lips of the sherry barrels quietly maturing the alluring craythur from Blackwater to Dingle, Mayo to Carlow, Down, Belfast and back again to its home in the Dublin Liberties. For the fires have been lit once again under Ireland’s copper stills.
What is also behind this re-emergence is a genuine interest in taste, in expertise, in culinary experiment and most of all, in craft. Something is actually being made here. Barley is grown, soaked, smoked or dried, brewed and distilled in copper, then cut, mixed, and let sit for at least seven years in an oak barrel in a cellar under your feet as you crisscross the city daily and it sits there while the barrel and its goldening tincture let play the dizzying cornucopia of flavours, esters and feints that will be bottled, labelled and poured into your glass as you stop in one evening for a sup on your way across the city.
Well-ordered into clear sections telling you what pot still whiskey is, how it is made and what to look out for when tasting, O’Connor’s book leads us through the how and the where of this product, all the while distilling a very singular alternative history for Ireland and Dublin that takes in economic and social history, gastronomy, revolution, science and alchemy, Prohibition, Catholic Emancipation and the temperance movement, excise men and the suspicious disappearance of several “gaugers”. So pull up a stool, pour yourself a hearty tipple and soak up this singular tale.
Keith Payne was the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications) was published in 2015. It was followed in 2016 by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) .