Fionnán O’Connor drinks his way through the spectre of Ireland’s whiskey history, plots his revenge on several living fiends, and gives an overview of Irish distilling’s most exciting new creations

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Boann, Echlinville, Killowen, Waterford and Blackwater distilleries

It’s a pretty looking place on a Sunday if you’re lucky but as anyone who’s actually walked through one of those valleys can attest, there’s an awful lot of muck in Ireland. Muck in the midlands, muck out west. Muck on a hilltop and again down in the pubs, where you’ll also find stale breath, staler carpets, stale cream on stale stout, depending on the decade more or less oil in the bottom of your Powers and in from the downpour, whatever you stepped in still clinging to your soles.

ABOVE: Barley harvested for Waterford distillery

No other life, really, but it should come as no surprise that in selling all this, there’s a lot of muck too. When I last wrote for Unfiltered in 2014, the pile had grown erosive. Dull old muck about light Irish softness was being churned with fresh slurry from heaps of identically sourced malts strapped to zombified ‘brand stories’ and the quaint names of valleys where they hadn’t been made. Similarly flushed with preemptive success, a shadowy league of market entrants dressed as artisan proprietors seemed intent on re-landscaping the place into a glen bespeckled Toon Town of imitative stock – a kind of Highland simulacrum in which history isn’t real and the whole idyll, approached, starts to sink beneath your feet. Delicate and smooth. Boutique. It all sounded dreadful, but the whisky for a few of them sounded somewhat incidental (as is its spelling here). It hurt all the more because the fault, dear Brutus, lay not within the muck but in ourselves for spewing it so long. Not everyone, in fairness.

Gingery bristle, viscosity and liquorice – the older styles of Irish, grown hoary with neglect, never lost their native acolytes. Abroad though, even among whiskyphiles, the isle just south of Islay appeared misunderstood. Already hastily paved over by a 1980s motorway of ever-lighter blends and branding, Irish whiskey’s old oily soul was still largely unknown outside a cultish critical following and those with an intuitive lust for the turbid joys, with the muck outside, of a gulp of viscous fusels in a damp, well-lighted place. As unprecedented cashflow tectonically reshaped the very mud beneath its claws, in 2014 the native breed of raw barley skunk, having persisted so long, appeared at risk of sobering up. In such dire times (as Irish whiskey thrived and bloomed) it seemed a moral duty to draw lines in the sludge.

PICTURED: Ed Harpur in his barley field in Wexford on the south coast


Just to clear the air, that was six years ago. The skunk, still unctuous, is certainly not dead. There’s still a war for the poor thing’s soul and habitat but there’s something cooler – chilling even – downwind of it these days. Musty old peach skin on a two-year old’s nose. A dry smoke finish on an oily newmake pot still. Galia melon in a malt.

Despite the forecast, there’s been a thrilling condensation in these past few years, most of it still in warehouse racks, splicing un-nosed traits to finishes and textures refreshingly, intoxicatingly, decades out of date. Yes, there’s plenty of delicious Irish whiskey out now but the renaissance – the real one – hasn’t even turned six. I’ve a few on the table and I’m shivering just nosing them. Historic in both senses. It’s also snowing…