An outspoken distiller, a defiant gesture
IRELAND'S WHISKEY RENAISSANCE: Part 6
Should that Pauline epiphany arrive (it won’t), the road to Damascus would likelier be the N25 to the south end of the county, where his neighbour Peter Mulryan at Blackwater Distillery is doing something like that now. A former whisky writer himself, Peter has both a tremendous understanding of Irish whisky’s past and a healthy contempt for being told to keep hush.
Between Brendan and Mark he’s in the gadfly premier league and still manages to be the most outspoken distiller in the trade, not only decrying the hamstrung Irish pot still technical file but defiantly producing streams of non-compliant stock and hosting public tastings to illustrate the point. It’s thrilling spirit, to be fair.
The sample I have here is from a non-compliant mash ironically originating from a 1953 document signed by the long-gone Irish Pot Still Distillers Association: 40 per cent barley, 40 per cent malt, 15 per cent oats, and five per cent wheat.
BELOW: Peter Mulryan, founder
ABOVE: John Wilcox, ‘Distillasaurus Rex’ at Blackwater Distillery
It’s a defiant gesture but a gorgeous one and probably the closest relative to the pre-70s incarnations now revered. Like Mark Reynier, Peter and his transplanted American craft distiller John have a strong interest in reviving archaic strains of barley, although in Blackwater’s case they’re subbed in as a raw unmalted feature across various mash bill ratios. There’s a split personality of methodical interrogation and renegade creativity about Blackwater. It’s usually quite loud.
Whenever I’ve visited, the two of them always seem to be banging their heads together in what I’m told is a good time. “Finishing isn’t innovation,” John told me loudly when I asked for his thoughts on the trade. “We’ve come and gone past finishing. We’ve come and gone past mizunara. We’ve come and gone past tokaji. We need to get our fingers in the dirt.”
The 1953 spirit here, which tastes like something a gardener might want to nurse, is drawn from “Old Irish” barley. Between familiar lipids and oils and oaten creams there’s a mossy, green tea streak to it. Are green tea marshmallows a thing? I’m sure they must exist and if they don’t, this does. Speaking of must, this smells like that too. And moss. And what John calls “peanut, only raw peanut though. You sit with it, it sits with you.”
With hunter barley subbed into that 40 per cent, John claims that the must turns into mango, while Goldthorpe barley smells like Honey Nut Cheerios. He hasn’t gone completely native. John’s background in Oregon’s irreverent craft distilling scene is attuned to Blackwater’s ethos like a tightly strung fiddle (which, along with Irish language lessons, he’s learning to play).
The pens and pads projectivism, the irreverence, the willingness to make “Peat the magic dragon” or Maryland style rye go hand in hand with a guerilla sense of heritage.
John, like Peter, is outspokenly forthright but that hasn’t stopped them founding a guild of craft distillers to coordinate resources and in Peter’s words, “just help each other out”.
It’s fitting that the 1953 mash is itself the child of a collaborative document. Themselves and Killowen are working on a collaboration as I write this. Despite anyone’s ambitions, this is still a small island.
A COPPERSMITH'S ANVIL OF IDEAS
So what is Irish whisky in its second adolescence now? Boann and Blackwater’s historical examinations. Echlinville and Waterford’s re-rooting in the land. Waterford and Blackwater’s old barley strain tests. Grumbling traditionalism. A shedload of distillers unfairly left unmentioned. An awful lot of downright lies. Is it shared precedent? Shared place? Shared tax exasperations?
It’s certainly not what it was six years ago. Most cynically, “Irish Whiskey” can be a cohesive commercial apparatus in which many things can thrive.
More encouragingly, if everybody’s sound it can be a peer group and community. A coppersmith’s anvil of ideas, some in tandem, some in friction, some working in pure solitude, most of them mercurial for the moment, all tied by sheer vicinity. It can resuscitate, reshape, and reengage with its past, while engaging with the left hand – and often in disagreement – in new and creative ways with single malt and tillage and experimental concepts on the global whisky stage. It can be in the plural. Whatever gets made will be the drink people call it when it’s all found out about rather soon. Michael, Mark. They will all be a part of it. Because much like anyone in this much muck, they’re stuck here with each other and they breathe the same air.
Fionnán O’Connor is a whiskey writer and author of A Glass Apart, the definitive guide to Irish pot still whiskey. He has served as a consultant and lecturer for distilleries across Ireland, chairs the cask selection committee of the Irish Whiskey Society and worked as an independent bar staff educator. In 2018 he was awarded a full-time PhD grant by the Irish Research Council to investigate the potential of lost historical mash bills in driving innovation in contemporary Irish distilling. He continues to contribute articles to books and magazines across the industry.