With the long-awaited whiskies from Blackwater in Ireland soon to be landing at Master of Malt, Ian Buxton talks to Peter Mulryan, the distillery’s outspoken founder about his problems with Drinks Ireland, and tastes the first releases which are based on historic mashbills.

Right across the world of whisky old shibboleths are being challenged. In Australia, for example, the innovative 78° Distillery have enjoyed great success with its Native Grain Whiskey; in Scotland, both Arbikie and Inchdairnie are experimenting with rye and there are a number of trials of bere barley underway.  But what about Ireland, where the iconoclastic Mark Reynier continues his exploration of terroir (or téireoir as he would have it) and his long-standing grievances with the established wisdom of the major players. Well, as we shall see, he’s not alone and now Blackwater’s Peter Mulryan has joined the fray – but first, some background.

The big three

Until very recently, virtually all Irish whiskey came from one of three very large distilleries so whatever the label implied – and some brands were economical with the strict truth – independent bottlers and newbie distillers desperate for some cash flow and brand awareness had little choice of supplier. Take what you were offered was the commercial reality, and be grateful for it; history, provenance and the consumer be damned. 

Until 2014 there was no equivalent of the Scotch Whisky Association to police the market but, following the establishment of the Irish Whiskey Association (now Drinks Ireland) a technical file covering the production of Irish whiskey was adopted into EU law as the Geographical Indicator (GI) of Irish whiskey.

That, you would imagine, has to be a good thing. Well, there’s an old proverb ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ and, according to some of the new generation of Irish distillers, that was primarily the Pernod Ricard subsidiary, Irish Distillers (largest of the big three). The technical file determines that: “Irish Pot Still Whiskey must be made from a mash which contains a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required”. 

Which just happens to suit the big boys.  Which does not include everyone….

Peter Mulryan from Blackwater Distillery

Peter Mulryan from Blackwater Distillery

Like defining Champagne and leaving out the bubbles

Enter Peter Mulryan, broadcaster, whisky author and CEO of the Blackwater Distillery. He has been digging through historical records going back several hundred years and maintains that other cereals were certainly used at up to 30% of the mash bill and possibly considerably more. According to him, the GI fails to recognise “over two hundred years of tradition”. It is, suggests Mulryan, “like defining Champagne and leaving out the bubbles”. 

Does this matter? Well, Blackwater and a number of other new distilleries want to innovate, to experiment, to recreate historical styles and generally stretch the possibilities of cereal in a pot still. That’s their commercial risk, of course, but exciting for curious drinkers.

So Blackwater, first established in 2014 but distilling in Ballyduff since 2018, are now making what they claim to be “the kind of single pot still whisky [Mulryan spells whisky without the ‘e’] Ireland was once famous for, and not the neutered, revisionist spirit that has hijacked the name”. Unfortunately for Blackwater the current regulations mean that these whiskies cannot be sold as single pot still Irish whiskey, nor can there be any allusion to it on the label so Mulryan has styled these Dirtgrain whiskies a ‘Manifesto Release of single cask Irish Whisky’. Each of the 1,000 numbered boxes, each containing 4 x 200ml bottles is accompanied by a slim hardback book in which he argues his case and presents the evidence for it.

Dirtgrain Blackwater Irish Whiskey

Tasting Blackwater Dirtgrain whiskies

Let’s see what we’ve got.

Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #38 

40% laureate barley, 40% costello wheat, 20% gangway and laureate barley. Aged in apple brandy cask. 47.1% ABV with notes of orchard and pear skin and spicy baked hazelnut.

First up is a real time machine, based on a mash bill recorded in Samuel Morewood’s 1838 magnum opus A Philosophical and Statistical History of the Inventions and Customs of Ancient and Modern Nations in the Manufacture and Use of Inebriating Liquors. Not, it must be conceded the snappiest of titles, but this is a vital text in the historical record and the kind of documentation that demonstrates Mulryan’s deep commitment to inspiration and transparency based on heritage.

Hence Mash Bill #38 references the 1838 roots of this expression.

Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #93 

46% laureate barley, 35% gangway and laureate barley, 15% husky oat, 4% peated laureate malt. Aged in sherry cask. 43.1% ABV and offering robust sherry and a leather satchel, pepper and spicy smoke profile.

The #93 is drawn from a mash bill that appears in a true whisky classic, the 1893 edition of J. A. Nettleton’s The Manufacture of Spirit. Now exceptionally rare, together with the more extensive later edition (1913), it remains one of the most important records of production techniques from the 19th century. It’s a foundation document that remains of continuing relevance to the curious and innovative distiller.

Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #08 

50% gangway and laureate malt, 35% laureate barley, 15% husky oat. Aged in bourbon cask. 45.3% ABV and suggestive of fruity grain and redcurrant with dark cocoa powder.

For #08, Mulryan has turned to evidence given by major Irish distillers to the important 1908 Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits as Parliament considered the ‘What is Whisky?’ case, a turning point in the development of the modern distilling industry. Both Andrew Jameson and James Talbot Power testified to mash bills containing rye, wheat, oats and barley demonstrating unequivocally that there was variation even in Dublin whisky.

Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #15 

40% laureate barley, 30% gangway and laureate barley, 15% husky oat, 12% costello wheat, 3% performer rye. Aged in rye cask. 44.2% ABV, where orange blossom, dark chocolate and tropical plum pudding are to be detected.

This final #15 is based on the January 1915 brewing and distilling records of Allman & Company, distillers in Bandon, Co. Cork. Alfred Barnard considered its whiskey to be of “superior quality” but despite this it ceased production around 1925, was closed in 1929 and the distillery subsequently demolished. But with actual documentation to support the mash bill, here again the Blackwater production is rooted in closely observed, unarguable physical evidence of distilling practice from over a century ago.

The Blackwater Distillery in Ballyduffy

The Blackwater Distillery in Ballyduffy

The unimportance of wood

However, in reviewing these one question kept creeping uncomfortably to mind. While stressing the primacy of the grain Mulryan is quietly dismissive of the importance of wood. “More flavour going into the still equals more flavour coming out of the still,” he writes, going on to add, “we don’t need casks to do the heavy lifting for us”. 

Which caused me to question the use of varying casks here. If the aim was to demonstrate the power and potential of the different mash bills, why age these four whiskies in four very varied casks (Calvados, sherry, bourbon and rye)? The experiment would be all the more powerful, surely, if all had been presented in as near identical a set of casks as could be found, thus providing a level playing field for the underlying taste differences to be clearly detected.

But despite this it’s an exciting set of whiskies; a fascinating exercise and a direct challenge to established orthodoxy. It all makes for more fun and variety – something for whisky fans to argue about through the long winter nights.

A limited stock of  4 x 20cl Dirtgrain Manifesto Edition packs have just arrived at Master of Malt.