You would be forgiven for thinking Irish whiskey comes only in shot form. Most of us know it as little more than a light, blended whiskey, and few of us can name an Irish whiskey that isn’t Jameson, Powers or Bushmills. It’s no wonder — until a decade ago, only three distilleries in Ireland made every whiskey on the shelf. But at the height of Ireland’s distilling history, 88 licensed distilleries were in operation, producing several styles. The quintessential Irish style is known as single pot still whiskey. Made with a mix of malted and unmalted barley, it was a rich and smooth spirit that helped make Irish whiskey the largest global spirits category of the 19th century. The unmalted or “green” barley gave the whiskey a spicy bite and a creamy texture. With brands like Redbreast and Green Spot, that style is now making a well-deserved comeback.
Until the mid-19th century, Irish distillers were adding something other than green barley to their mash bills: oats. The grain better known as a foodstuff was an odd choice for distilling. In A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey, Fionnán O’Connor writes that they were a “pain to work with,” creating a sticky mash like, well, oatmeal that was said to cause certain smaller stills to explode. It’s difficult to know what the oats would have brought to the flavor profile of the whiskey, although flavor was surely part of the motivation for adding them in the first place. The question is probably best answered with a dram of a whiskey made in the USA.
The Emerald 1865 from Ransom Spirits in Oregon is a straight American whiskey distilled from a mix of mostly malted and some unmalted barley, rye and oats. It’s inspired by Irish mash bills of yore, distilled in direct-fire copper pot stills. According to Ransom owner and distiller Tad Seestedt, “Oats bring a distinctive aromatic to the whiskey, reminiscent of the oatmeal we have for breakfast. They also add a significant amount of palate weight and viscosity to the mouth.”
“My best guess would be that Irish whiskeys made before the turn of the 20th century were heavier-bodied, richer and more complex than the ones of today.”
So how did oats disappear from the mash bill? In the late 1800s, traditional Irish distillers were protesting the use of a new technology: the column still, invented in 1830. They feared it would change distillation and Irish whiskey dramatically. They were right. The column still gave rise to the lighter style of Irish whiskey we know today. Eventually, says Seestedt, hearings were held to determine how to define Irish whiskey and how it should be made. Members of both the Powers and Jameson families testified, stating that Irish whiskeys should not be made in a column still. They also argued that since the 1700s the spirit had never been made without oats. Needless to say, their advice was not heeded.
“Certain market, political and technological events conspired to change Irish whiskey from what it once was. Those same influences are at work now reversing that history,” says Seestedt, referring to the single pot still style renaissance. “My best guess would be that Irish whiskeys made before the turn of the 20th century were heavier-bodied, richer and more complex than the ones of today. It would be extremely interesting to find a preserved bottle from way back to taste, but such an occasion is unlikely. We can only surmise.”
Might we suggest pondering the potable past over a pour of the Emerald 1865? With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, there are a number of great Irish whiskeys to choose from (see above, for starters) and more to come — at least two dozen craft distilleries are in the works in Ireland. But for an idea of what may have been, an American experiment might be just the ticket.