Bernard Walsh: the Irishman behind The Irishman (and Writers’ Tears)
Bernard Walsh, Managing Director of Walsh Whiskey, has been at the forefront of Ireland’s whiskey renaissance with The Irishman and Writers’ Tears brands. Quench caught up with him during a brief stopover in Toronto to ask him about the current state of Irish whiskey (and to taste some of the fine fruits of his labour).
It appears that Irish whiskey is becoming more popular. Is this correct?
Bernard Walsh: Yes, you’re right. I’ve been in the Irish whiskey industry for 20 years now, and 20 years ago Irish whisky was two million cases; today it’s 11 million cases. In terms of distilleries; twenty years ago, three distilleries. Today; 30 distilleries. For the past 20 years, things have really started to happen. New, young distillers and entrepreneurs have gotten into the business. Some didn’t make it, but those who went the distance really benefited.
BW: Over the course of the 20th century, Irish whiskey had been dumbed down to be something rather simple. I was always under the belief that Irish whisky could be quite complex. Though we were one of the first, many new distilleries are now pushing the boundaries. The upshot is that the younger generation started to become more interested. They wanted to boundaries pushed, and became very interested in the distilleries that were doing so.
Let’s talk about some of the misconceptions about Irish whiskey, starting with, oh, I don’t know, maybe the whole triple distillation thing. Is all Irish whiskey triple distilled? Does it have to be?
BW: While it is right to say that most Irish whiskey is triple distilled – I think over 90 percent is – but if you go back far enough in time, it wasn’t. In the 1800s certain distillers started to become very big and powerful globally. In order to challenge the smaller distillers – the boys in the hills – they decided they’s up the bar my introducing a third still, which was too costly a move for the smaller guys to follow suit. And it added an additional level of complexity to the process. The result was a cleaner, smoother style, which was then promoted as being a superior style.
So if a “cleaner” style was the goal, I suspect any peat being used in the distilling process was eliminated…if, in fact, peat was historically ever used. Was it?
BW: It’s essentially the same situation. Rather than using open smoke fires to dry the grain, the bigger distillers introduced a closed system, again, to differentiate their style from the style of the smaller competitors. Again, a cleaner style.
And the global prominence of the big boys’ spirits leads to the global acceptance that the un-peated, triple distilled style of Irish whiskey was, in fact, the “proper” style of Irish whiskey?
BW: Yes. That style defined Irish whiskey as a category. Up till Prohibition, that’s what people around the world wanted. It was even referred to as “Dublin whiskey” to distinguish it from whiskies coming out of the countryside.
So, what where you aiming to do to set your whiskies apart from, well, the “established” style?
BW: I was interested in what made Irish whiskey so interesting back in the 1800s. Whiskey had been produced in Ireland long before the arrival of continuous column stills using, of course, single batch copper pot stills. Tradition Irish whiskies were a blend of single pot still and single malt whiskies, without the inclusion of column distilled grain spirits. In the 1900s, this more assertive style largely disappeared. We wanted to push forward by going back to what Irish whiskey had historically – and originally – been like.
Meaning using pot stills exclusively?
BW: All distillates/whiskies contained in either Writers Tears’ or The Irishman family of whiskies are distilled only in a pot still. Our whiskies are unique in Ireland in that we do not include any grain/corn whiskey in our blends. Instead we are marrying single pot still and single malt whiskies to get that really flavoursome, full bodied-taste from pot distillates.
The terms “single pot still” and “single malt” may cause some confusion; I mean, a “single malt” whisk(e)y is typically made in a “pot still,” no?
BW: The difference between single pot still and single malt is the mash (ingredients). The mash for single malt is made from 100 percent malted barley, whereas the mash for single pot still contains both malted barley and unmalted barley (aka, green barley). The mash for single pot still can also contain up to five percent of other cereals, but Walsh sticks to 100 percent barley.
What can we anticipate from Walsh Whiskey going forward? You mentioned off the top that you were down in Niagara barrel hunting. Is aging in different barrels something you are pursuing?
BW: For me, when it comes to barrels you have to halves of the world: the spirit world; barrels from the Caribbean, Kentucky, and so forth, and the wine world. I have a sweet tooth and love fortified wines – ports, sherries, marsala. We experiment with about 20 per cent wine barrels, which are about six times more expensive than Kentucky barrels, so you have to balance things from an economic perspective. But the wine barrels are what I really like to experiment with.
For finishing, or for the entire length of aging?
BW: Both. One of our whiskies is aged entirely in an oloroso sherry butt.
So, what did you find in Niagara?
BW: It was a very interesting trip to Niagara, so we might have something special coming out in the future…with a Canadian twist!
Here are a few of the whiskies that comprise The Irishman and Writers’ Tears portfolio (all bottles are 700ml):
Writers’ Tears Copper Pot Irish Whiskey 40% ABV
The marriage of malt and pot still whiskies has been known to result in the creation of “The Champagne of Irish Whiskey.” Writers’ Tears Copper Pot is exactly that: a sophisticated and elegant blend of the two distinctive whiskey styles. Expect to find some forward, fruity nuances (apple and pear), combined with hints of vanilla pod and balking spice on the nose. On the palate, warm honey, vanilla and ginger are interlaced with some malty undertones. Fruity/honey notes leave a lasting impression on the finish.
Writers’ Tears Double Oak Irish Whiskey 46% ABV
Another triple-distilled combination of single malt and single pot still whiskies, this whiskey undergoes a unique double aging regime. Both ex-bourbon barrels from Kentucky, and French Oak cognac casks from the Allary Cooperage are employed in the maturation process, resulting in a very fragrant, mildly malty aroma, with suggestions of dark fruit (plum), poached pear, and cinnamon stick that lead to a smooth, full mouthfeel, with flavours redolent of sultana and lemon zest, with toasted nuts, and mildly spicy cocoa lingering pleasantly behind.
Writers’ Tears Red Head Irish Whiskey 46% ABV
A non-chill filtered single malt Irish whiskey matured entirely in oloroso sherry casks. The result is a powerful, complex dram that puts to rest any preconceptions that all Irish whiskies are “light” and “delicate.” The sherry influence is evident in the fragrant nose that leans towards sultana, candied orange peel, and dried apricot, enhanced by suggestions of mild smoke and cedar. In the mouth, nutty/sherried flavours come forward, backed by a touch of marmalade, and a dash of sweet raisin pie.
The Irishman Founder’s Reserve Irish Whiskey 40% ABV
A triple-distilled, premium combination of 70 percent aged single malt and 30 per cent aged single pot still whiskies matured in ex-bourbon barrels, The Irishman Founder’s Reserve is a gold medal-winning, 100 percent copper pot distillate that’s become a modern Irish whiskey classic. Zesty and peppery initial aromatics give way to orchard fruit, malt, and dark chocolate, all of which reappear in the mouth, along with additional suggestions of smoky oak, toffee, malt, and citrus that segue into a haunting finale of butterscotch and vanilla.