The general concept of “Irish whiskey” is fairly well understood to brown spirits drinkers, but Ireland’s specific native style tends to fly under the radar all the same. Suffice to say, “single malt whiskey” can certainly be found in Ireland, but that’s really more of a Scottish thing. Nor are we talking about blended whiskey. We’re talking about single pot still Irish whiskey.
What is single pot still Irish whiskey, and what does that title imply? As recently as a few decades ago, there was only one real, widely available example of the style: Redbreast. It was a historical relic at that point, the last remaining vestige of a time when single pot still Irish whiskey was actually the most popular and widely consumed style of whiskey in the world. And indeed it was, until the boom of cheaper, lighter blended whiskies that became the norm in the 19th and 20th centuries. The heavier, more characterful styles were thus phased out, and single pot still whiskey disappeared almost entirely from memory.
Now, of course, the style has returned and hit a stride once again in the modern world of craft distilleries. But what sets the style apart, specifically?
The biggest difference of single pot still Irish whiskey, and the reason why it doesn’t have “malt” in the name, is that the style combines both malted and unmalted barley in its mash. This is the only style where this is the case, and the presence of the raw, unmalted barley in the mash is said to contribute a spicier, wilder, less honeyed character than regular malted barley. Additionally, single pot still Irish whiskey is also allowed to contain small amounts (up to 5%) of other cereal grains as well, such as oats and rye, which can add further complexity to the mash profile. The whiskey is then double or triple distilled in traditional Irish pot stills—the “single” just means it’s the product of a single distillery, as in single malt scotch. And there you have it—originally created as a style to avoid a tax on malted barley in 1785, single pot still Irish whiskey grew into a defining flavor of its region. Today, many more single pot still Irish whiskeys are now available, from the reliable brilliance of Redbreast to others from companies such as Green Spot, Teeling, Dingle and Powers.
Which brings us to a brand new offering on the market: The Busker Irish Whiskey. Owned by Disaronno International, this is a new brand with international distribution, producing a blended flagship (just called The Busker) in addition to its “Single Collection”—a single grain, single malt, and single pot still whiskeys. Curious to see how they would tackle the historical importance of single pot still whiskey in particular, I requested a sample of that particular spirit.
The Busker is distilled at the Royal Oak Distillery in County Carlow, which until recently was the Walsh Distillery, the source of popular Irish whiskey brands Writers’ Tears and The Irishman. When the Walsh Distillery founders and Royal Oak owners Illva Saronno parted ways, the distillery then pivoted to a new lineup of spirits, and The Busker was born. The distillery now differentiates itself by producing the three elements of its “Single Collection,” in addition to using three different varieties of casks: ex-bourbon, ex-marsala and ex-sherry.
The Busker Single Pot Still is specifically matured in bourbon and sherry casks, although we would wager that the sherry casks make up a relatively smaller percentage, as the resulting spirit does not read like a heavily sherried single malt. Rather, this non-age-stated whiskey is powered by its grain elements, with considerable supporting spice. This expression is bottled at 44.3% ABV (88.6 proof).
On the nose, this whiskey reads as warm and doughy, with a bit of ethanol prickle. There’s lots of barley grain here, with graininess/breadiness reminiscent of rye bread with caraway, along with peppery spice, almond and orchard fruit notes of red apple. Caramelized sugars in the form of toffee are also a considerable player on the nose, while the alcohol presence hints at the fact that this is somewhere north of 80 proof.
On the palate, the first thing one notes is a surprisingly oily and viscous texture, which makes The Busker Single Pot Still quite tongue-coating. There’s a lot of dark honey and toffee on first inspection, and it trends toward the sweeter side, but repeated sips bring out more and more spice, along with some grass and herbaceousness. This is a less fruit-driven whiskey, being more a showcase for grain and spice flavors—not lacking in punch by any means, but perhaps not as nuanced or complex as it might be. The impression that I keep returning to? Like rye toast with spicy caramel.
All in all, The Busker Single Pot Still doesn’t give you the complexity of something like the classic Redbreast 12, but at $30 it also rings in at almost half the price, so that’s certainly in its favor. In fact, this is likely one of the most affordable examples of single pot still Irish whiskey out there. If it’s a style you find intriguing, keep an eye out as it hits store shelves in the U.S.
Distillery: The Busker (Royal Oak Distillery)
City: Royal Oak, County Carlow, Ireland
Style: Single pot still Irish whiskey
ABV: 44.3% (88.6 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $30 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.