A haunted, slightly nervous industry


It could also just be the first two drams to hand. Delighted as I was in 2014 mumbling glumly into my Redbreast, a few years on I was collared by the research council to write a PhD on the history of Irish mash bills, a part of which entails the recreation, with the help of Boann distillery, of a series of lost recipes. It’s two of those I’m nosing now and they smell like how snow really ought to taste. Icing, anyway. Later this year they’ll be sent to a lab at Heriot-Watt University for a parallel study in tandem with a blind nosing panel of 30 head distillers (yes, there are over 30 in Ireland now).

It’s because of the sensitivities of that testing that I can’t be more specific but this first one, made from barley, malt and oats, is not the dram I thought it’d be. Once composing 5-30 per cent of the typical grist, oats fell off the Irish map in 1974 and though they were an integral part of almost all of Ireland’s old single pot still classics, there’s obviously no new-make left. As for this, there’s a high note, like a wedding cake made slippery by the barley, injected with malt ester pear drops, and grinned at in the background by an uninvited ginger guest. He’s an old family friend and his smile only gets wryer in the second dram to hand. What either of these profiles will do in white oak I can only guess.

What Ireland’s leading noses will make of them remains, for the next couple months at least, a mystery but it’s hard, discussing them with Boann’s distiller Michael Walsh, not to feel the heart beat fast.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve done,” he says. His pride is palpable but tied up with an often humble cognisance, both now and in his early career as head distiller in his native Dingle, of the existence of his projects in the tall vaulted warehouse of Irish whisky’s past and future.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve done”

Boann distiller, Michael Walsh (pictured)

It’s not just Boann. Among anyone who’s taken a sincere look back there’s a sense in Ireland of a haunted, slightly nervous industry, drawn from a very suddenly redrawn map and centuries of untapped wellspring that was covered for too long.

Raw barley, yes, but peat and oats and rye and wheat and double distillation and so many things that happened here before and were ignored, denied and swept aside and are sitting now in casks. Lest you get the wrong idea, there’s still the old muck, but even that cracks.

There’s also nothing stopping anyone distilling anything that comes to mind.

Its old industry a ghost outside Midleton and Bushmills, Irish distilling is paradoxically at ease, at least among its nimbler thinkers, to do more or less what it likes, and that’s happening too. Unlike in France or Tasmania though, an itch still twitches with the stillhouse ghost – often among those same distillers. A sense of legacy with some, a curiosity for others, which, vatted into method puts a few of them at the forefront of what’s now considered cutting edge. It might just be a chip on the shoulder. It’s exciting, anyway. Relic bottles give a window to what they might taste like matured but there’s also an emerging sense across them that the deep well water, if it’s there, has turned a little strange.