Last week, Teeling Whiskey Company made history by releasing the first Dublin-distilled whiskey in almost 50 years: Teeling Single Pot Still. We caught up with co-founder Stephen Teeling to talk fruity mash, Irish whiskey’s soul, and the anticipation of a little peated number…
If there’s one thing that Teeling Whiskey Company is particularly good at, it’s preserving the essence and tradition of Irish whiskey while at the same time pushing – no, steamrolling – the envelope.
The distillery’s first ever commercial release*, Teeling Single Pot Still, is finally here, and it’s a cracking example. Though the whiskey is made from a traditional recipe of 50% unmalted barley and 50% malted barley – a nod to the Dublin distillers of days gone by – every other distilling variable has been modified and modernised.
Take fermentation. When Stephen Teeling and his brother Jack (their father John Teeling founded the Cooley Distillery) established the distillery back in 2015, they realised that “around 95% of all the Irish whiskey produced used this one strain of yeast”, he says.
They switched to a blend of white wine yeast and distiller’s yeast. After plenty of chemical analysis and weeks upon weeks of blind tastings with various cuts, the team landed on a spec that tasted so good – “spicy creamy mouthfeel, quite fruit-forward, with green or white fruits” – they straight up bottled it as Teeling Poitín.
Distilled in 2015, the new-make was aged in ex-bourbon and virgin oak white wine casks, before being married in an ex-sherry cask for the final five months of its life. “All the experience we’ve had with wood finishes gave us a really good understanding of flavours that would compliment the pot still, rather than overpower it,” Teeling adds.
While the spirit is yet to wing its way to the UK, given tasting notes include lychees, white grapes and white pepper with warm roasted peaches and baked biscuits, and a dry finish packed with spice, roasted almonds and maple sugar. De-licious.
Experimental Irish whiskey
The next stage of the Irish whiskey category’s evolution is about “creating something that wasn’t necessarily there before,” Teeling outlines. “If there’s a wall of whiskies from all over the world, be it America, Scotland, Sweden, Taiwan, England, why is somebody going to buy your bottle?,” he says. “It can’t just be because you’re from Ireland.”
The distillery is to release triple-distilled peated Dublin single malt whiskey next year, which Teeling reckons will “get people scratching their heads”. We’re not talking lightly peated; the spirit boasts a phenol ppm of around 60, on a par with many Islay single malts.
The team is set to continue the Vintage Reserve collection, which most recently expanded to include a 30-year-old single malt, while patiently overseeing the maturation of Crystal Rye malt distilled around 18 months ago.
Meanwhile, a stout cask-finished whiskey is also in the works, along with single malt aged in Australian red wine barrels sourced from Jim Barry Wines (incidentally, the Barry family were originally from Ireland).
The future of Irish whiskey
It’s an exciting time to ride the Irish whiskey wave. Exports from the Emerald Isle are soaring, distilleries are cropping up left, right, and centre, and visitor numbers are through the roof. In mature markets such as the US, the spirit is booming. But when it comes to treading new ground in South America, Africa and Asia, there’s some way to go.
“Somebody told me that more Irish whiskey is sold in Dublin airport than the whole of China, which made no sense to me at first,” says Teeling. “When I went over to China I understood why: it’s still a very early stage whiskey market.”
As it stands, the category is a curious amalgamation of distillers selling their own mature stock, distilleries bottling sourced spirit as they wait for their new make to come of age, and whiskey bonders. Unfortunately, the bottle label doesn’t always provide an accurate ‘who’s who’.
Like any emerging industry, Teeling says, it’s important to have rules and boundaries. On the flipside, there’s a delicate balance between protecting the buyer and putting a chokehold on innovation. “If we can make it a little bit clearer and a little bit fairer, I think people will appreciate that,” he says.
So, what does the next 10 years hold? Expect segmentation, plenty of new producers, and a whole host of single malt, single pot still, and even single grain bottlings, Teeling predicts, along with a distillery “shakeout” during which only those which are “doing something interesting and genuine” will survive.
“I think Irish whiskey just needs to find its soul a little bit,” he adds. “There’s a proliferation of brands with probably the same liquid in [their bottles]. These days, drinkers are too clever to put up with that sort of stuff, so I think there’ll be the shakeout – and then we’ll start again and see who is genuine.”
* ’Commercial’, because the distillery actually held a charity auction for its first 100 bottles back in September. Bottle number one sold for £10,000, breaking a world record for the most expensive bottle of whiskey sold from a new distillery. AWESOME.