Welcome back to the Wide World of Whiskey series. Thank you for coming back to class, not falling asleep and appearing mildly interested. If I could hand out samples of whiskey through the screen, you know I would.
Last week, we went through the very strict rules that make bourbon bourbon, and how they may — or may not — differ from Tennessee Whiskey. If you missed that, click here to catch up.
This week, I’m diving head-first into the Irish Whiskey category with the help of — once again — Colin Blake, director of spirits education at Louisville’s Moonshine University, and Alex Conyngham, co-founder and director of Brown-Forman’s Slane Irish Whiskey.
As Insider reported earlier this week, the Slane Distillery in Ireland recently opened, offering visitors to the Emerald Isle a distillery experience much like our bourbon counterparts here. The distillery shares the same land as the Slane Castle, owned by the Conyngham family for three centuries.
We’ll get into Slane, which has a touch of influence from Brown-Forman’s bourbon ways, a bit later, but first, what is Irish Whiskey and what makes it different than bourbon?
Irish I had more whiskey
The rules of Irish Whiskey are less strict than bourbon, and one huge difference as we hop over the Atlantic Ocean is the lack of corn available. In fact, corn is so rarely used — and grown — in Europe, they don’t even call it corn over there, they call it maize.
It goes to show that distillers are influenced by their environments, and back in the day, making whiskey was a way to save excess crops and barter for other goods — not to shoot at bachelor parties or help stay warm while tailgating.
So what is Irish Whiskey made from? Mostly malted barley (and some unmalted barley), although other cereal grains are permissible, says Blake. It also must be made on the island of Ireland — duh — distilled at no more than 190 proof, and aged in Ireland in wooden casks for at least three years.
Irish Whiskey has been distilled since the 6th century, but like bourbon, it has ebbed and flowed in popularity. During Prohibition in the U.S., its reputation went from “Mean Girls” Lindsay Lohan to current-day Lindsay Lohan as bootleggers sold fake Irish Whiskey to thirsty Americans.
According to the Irish Whiskey Association, it continued to decline through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and only two distilleries remained. In the late 1980s, however, as other whiskey categories struggled, including bourbon, Irish Whiskey began to make a comeback. Jameson and other old-school brands started to be distributed throughout the world.
Today, Irish Whiskey is the fastest-growing whiskey category — and that’s no joke. As recent as 2013, there were four distilleries producing Irish Whiskey; now, there are 18, with at least 16 more being built. And remember, Ireland is only about the size of West Virginia.
“We have this skewed perception that bourbon is the hotest thing in the world, but the reality is we’re not growing nearly as fast as Irish Whiskey,” says Blake. “It’s the fastest-growing whiskey category and one of the fastest-growing spirits categories in the world.”
Blake calls Irish Whiskey “delicate,” and most of that has to do with the malt.
Evidently, malt can be high maintenance and probably takes at least two hours to get ready for a date. It can be overrun with flavors from the cask, or barrel, it’s put into, which is a reason Irish Whiskey is aged in used charred oak barrels and not new ones — like bourbon.
Another reason for that is Ireland’s mild temperatures. It does not have the extreme winters and summers as Kentucky, so the distillate that is sitting in the barrel does not go in and out of the wood like it does here. If you were to put Irish Whiskey in a new charred oak barrel, it would probably taste like licking the bottom of a charcoal grill.
Because of this, Irish Whiskey is less caramel and vanilla and more fruity and grassy.
“I’m a huge fan of this category,” Blake says. “It’s a very smooth and approachable whiskey.”
A couple of final things to mention — most Irish Whiskey is produced off of a pot still, as opposed to a column still, and most is triple distilled, although it doesn’t have to be by law. Also, the category of “single malt” or “single grain” means the whiskey comes from one distillery.
Meet Slane, a new kind of Irish Whiskey
I talked with Slane’s Alex Conyngham a few weeks before the distillery officially opened. His accent was so charming, I often lost track of what he was saying, so good thing I recorded it. He was reeling from the Slane product launch in Ireland and the U.S., and preparing to open his distillery’s doors to neighbors and tourists alike.
The Slane Castle and Rock Farm Slane has been in his family since 1703. Although whiskey was never made on the premises, the Boyne River Valley where it’s located, just about 45 minutes north of Dublin, was a center for whiskey production in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Slane Farm produces 2,000 tons of spring barley each year, so it was a pretty logical choice to open up a distillery on site. Add to that Conyngham’s background in whiskey — he once worked as a Jameson brand ambassador in Australia — and Brown-Forman’s partnership with the family, which began in 2015, and Slane Irish Whiskey was born.
One more cool fact about the Slane Castle — it’s been home to a music festival since the early 1980s that attracts thousands each year. It has featured everyone from U2 and the Rolling Stones to Guns N’ Roses just a few months ago.
But let’s get back to Conyngham’s accent — I mean whiskey. He tells me the distillery will produce four types of Irish Whiskey — triple-distilled malt whiskey, pot-still whiskey, grain whiskey and blended whiskey. The mantra for Slane is to respect tradition but also layer in innovation, he says.
Most Irish Whiskeys are aged in used American whiskey barrels, he says, and “we are grateful for that.” But what sets Slane apart is because it’s owned by Brown-Forman — producer of Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, among others — and B-F owns its own cooperage, Slane not only can hand-select which used whiskey barrels they want, but they can also produce new ones for the aforementioned idea of innovation.
This led to Slane’s unique triple-cask process.
“The challenge was how to build complexity and achieve our ambition of creating an Irish Whiskey blend that is new but is full of character,” says Conyngham. “The challenge was to look at the casks.”
Slane Irish Whiskey, which is available in Kentucky now, is a blend of three Irish Whiskeys that were sourced from another distillery (as Slane is just now producing distillate). Some of that whiskey was put into new American oak barrels made by the B-F cooperage. Some was put into used Jack Daniel’s barrels. And some was put into used sherry casks from Spain.
“All three of those whiskeys were quite different from each other, and it allowed us to blend them all together to create Slane,” explains Conyngham. “It’s bigger and bolder in color than other Irish Whiskeys because of the new American oak barrel.”
It’s like three recipes in one. The new barrels added the typical caramel and vanilla notes, the seasoned Jack barrels added some brown sugar flavors, and the sherry casks added those dark fruit notes of raisin, dates and a little bit of spice.
Blake tried a sample I provided him and agreed it was unlike most Irish Whiskeys he’s tried. He detected some pear and apple notes but also picked up on the spice.
“It has a nice, warm finish,” he says. “Tree fruit comes out at the finish.”
While Slane continues to be known for its music festival, Conyngham now hopes to add its whiskey to his family’s legacy.
“Whiskey and rock ‘n’ roll go well together, and if you look at our packaging, everything we strive for is being a little bit bold and different,” he says. “Our aim was to create an Irish Whiskey blend that was still smooth but bigger and bolder and more robust in flavor profile.”
This is Part 2 of a series. The others will be linked below as they are published.