Irish Distillers Ltd's (IDL) launch last week of two new Single Pot Still (SPS) whiskeys signaled a number of important developments to whiskey drinkers and the spirits industry at large, not the least of which were impressive new whiskeys.
The event itself was well-planned and well-produced as IDL hosted about 100 writers, distributors and others at its Midleton Distillery. That's no mean feat as the day's activities were taking place at both a working museum and an industrial-scale distillery and warehouse complex. The evening's gala dinner took place in one of the museum's old spirits storehouses. Our guides and hosts were none other the three Jameson Masters -- Barry Crockett, David Quinn and Billy Leighton -- along with many of IDL's distillery and marketing managers and supporting staff. All hands on deck, if you will. From the printed materials to the behind-the-scenes logistics to the whiskeys themselves it was evident that a great deal of thought, planning and budget went into the event.That's Nice. So What?
The point of recognizing all of that is not simply to compliment the IDL team (well-deserved in any case), but to put the launch of the SPS line and two new SPS offerings into a broader context. It's a context that looks beyond great new whiskeys we can enjoy (though that may be 9-12 months away for American whiskey drinkers). It highlights IDL's market-mover role, signals many more developments ahead and celebrates the ongoing and impressive renaissance of Irish whiskey as a spirits category. Down the road we might even look back and say that last week's SPS launch was the "coming out party" for Irish whiskey's restoration to it's former status as the world's premium spirit. Time will tell, of course. But there is much in play here just as there is at the other distilleries, notably Cooley's Riverstown and Kilbeggan facilities. These are exciting times.
The title of IDL's intro video at the beginning of the launch event
But let's not get too visionary and high-minded here, bejeez. Let's go get some whiskey!Coming Soon To A Glass Near You
IDL actually launched the SPS line and nomenclature on April 7 in response to a U.S. government agency questioning use of the word "pure." IDL probably was happy for the opportunity to fashion a new category launch from a bureaucratic muddle. There's also a benefit in using "Single Pot Still" to both play off and differentiate from the near-universal recognition of "single malt" as a whiskey category.
IDL's SPS logo. Some of the more literal/engineering-minded have wondered why it's called "single" pot still when three are shown. I say pour them a drink and both of you will tolerate the matter better.History, Legacy, Opportunity
The widely loved Red Breast 12-year-old and it's 15-year-old brand mate, plus the fabulous but limited-release Green Spot were the first official SPS entries. Even before the April 7 "SPS" introduction they were long recognized as the only "pure pot still" offerings. Each got packaging makeovers. Green Spot received a ground-up redesign. The whiskey itself changed with a relatively more pronounced green apple and fruit on nose and taste with the barley itself driving more of the flavor, and a pleasing and longer finish.
And even though bits of info had leaked out about them before the launch, the new Powers and Midleton SPS offerings were truly new and the ones we were dying to meet. And we did that day in a tasting hosted by Master Distiller Barry Crockett in the Master's Cottage -- Barry's former home.
The SPS Tasting Line UpPowers John's Lane Reserve 12-Year-Old
This is a wonderful reincarnation of the Powers single pot still whiskey originally produced at the John's Lane distillery in Dublin. Operating from 1791 until it closed in 1976, the John's Lane Distillery was larger than today's Midleton operation. Powers had been a pure pot still whiskey before becoming a blend in recent decades. Powers is a cultural icon in Ireland as well as a popular whiskey so changes to it -- and a return to its older style -- take on greater significance. The new Powers SPS retains the characteristic Powers spice and wood notes as well as the trademark "Three Swallows" embossed on the bottle.
"We brought to life the original flavor aspect of Powers whiskey as distilled in John's Lane," said Barry. "I happened to work at Powers before it closed so there is some interest there that I can relate this to, the style that then existed." Barry worked at Powers in the mid-70s and seemed to take pleasure in recreating the original whiskey style.
He said Powers gets its earthy, slightly fruity flavor more from specific brewing and pot still styles that differ from Green Spot's barley-based flavor. It also has a touch -- under 10 percent -- of sherry cask whiskey compared to none for Green Spot and much more for Red Breast. Powers John's Lane is bottled at 46% ABV and is non-chill filtered to stay true both to the older techniques and market preferences.
A close-up of the label
Overall, this is a rounder, livelier and more expressive iteration of both the the current standard and 12-year-old Powers. I'm anxious to try it alongside its recent predecessors. It promises to be a hit. Pricing is 45-50 Euro, so probably $60-75 in the US. IDL and Pernod Ricard are ironing out distribution in America so it's not expected to be available here for another 9-12 months. Looks like you'll just have to get in touch with the fine folks at the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin or pass through Duty Free in DUB or SNN before that to get your hands on a bottle.Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
Barry himself introduced his namesake whiskey, wryly noting the irony of the "Legacy" designation as he passed the bottle around the table: "Not that I wish to depart this life any time soon."
It's a fabulous SPS Midleton release, delicate, floral, a faint nose of pears with the vanilla/honey/toasted wood taste coming from aging in American bourbon barrels and a portion in "B-naughts" or new American oak barrels. It contains 10-22 year-old pot still whiskeys with a touch of 24-year-old whiskey.
The Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy packaging and label close-up
While 40,000 bottles of the current Midleton Very Rare vintage whiskeys are produced annually, only 7,000 bottles of Legacy will be issued at least for this first bottling. But it will continue and is the first in what Barry described as a coming line of "other expressions of pot still whiskey" under the Midleton label.But Wait, There's More.
The two new whiskeys (three if you count Green Spot) and IDL's launch of the SPS category signals the extensions of existing brands such as Powers and Red Breast as well as entirely new pot still whiskey styles.
"You can see that in this line up we have quite distinct flavor aspects in terms of the Irish pot still range," Barry said. "Both the Powers John's Lane and the Midleton will be ongoing expressions, in other words they're not just once-off bottlings. They will appear again as time progresses. And the intent is over the next medium term, even short- to medium-term to long term, to bring newer versions and newer styles of pot still whiskeys on to the market."
Irish Single Pot Still whiskey "has a real role to play," he said. "Just in the same manner as the single malt concept got so much attention in world terms we believe that this range of Irish pot still whiskeys will also grab a lot of attention."
He said that the growing market recognition of Red Breast played a big educational role and has been a catalyst for the SPS expansion. "From my own experience in trips to the States I've seen that people have broadened their understanding of Irish whiskey and in particular are now moving to the appreciation of the pot still category."
Irish distillers in past decades have been simultaneously inspired and burdened by history. But a corner has been turned in recent years as the category gained new legs and recovered from the lingering effects of near-extinction. But it is clear that those days are, indeed, past.
The distillers today are reviving the best aspects of past whiskey-making styles and traditions and adapting them to current tastes. Because of its size and global reach, IDL is driving the market. For that reason alone the SPS category will capture a lot of recognition. IDL's 100 million Euro expansion in the next two years will double distilling and warehouse capacity and provide flexibility to create new and smaller batch whiskeys. As David Havelin reports in Irish Whiskey Notes
that expansion is being accelerated. Barry Crockett said that the new stills are ordered and about to be built by Scottish coppersmiths using the same designs as the current stills.
Diageo's Bushmills Distillery has been quieter recently but you have to believe that they are at least in the planning stages of new developments.
And though it is much smaller than IDL or Bushmills, the Cooley Distillery continues to drive innovation and is releasing excellent whiskeys under its own and private labels. Its re-opening of the Kilbeggan Distillery was a watershed event and the three huge pot stills recovered from the Tullamore distillery and now housed in Kilbeggan offer much promise once in operation. Cooley is the only Irish-owned distillery, and its success has attracted the interest of Scotland's William Grant & Sons. William Grant last year bought the Tullamore Dew brand. An acquisition of all or part of Cooley would substantially boost William Grant's Irish operations far faster than reported plans to build a new distillery in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
The Single Pot Still category launch is more than just the premiere of new whiskeys. It is in the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Irish whiskey.