It’s time to tell you all about something we’ve been keeping under wraps for a few weeks now – we reckon this might be the most exciting find of Irish whiskey ever!
Towards the end of November, a team from Whisky-Online travelled over to Northern Ireland on the trail of a remarkable haul. Our own Wayne and Tim R got the redeye ferry over to Belfast, where they met up early one morning with freelance drinks writer and WOL collaborator Tim F, a native of the city along for the ride.
Our destination was a seaside town on the northern coast of the island, not far from the Giant’s Causeway. All we knew was that a large quantity of very old bottles had been discovered on some farmland, and that on the basis of some scientific analysis by Tatlock and Thomson (who have provided scientific services to the drinks trade for over a century) they were believed to be Irish whiskey. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but nothing ventured, nothing gained… as Wayne is fond of saying, half the fun of auctioneering is the thrill of the chase…
By lunchtime we’d picked up over 120 of some of the most remarkable bottles we’ve ever encountered and were on the way back to Belfast shaking our heads at the extraordinary origin story of this collection.
It transpired that the vendor was the nephew of a farmer in Tyrone who had agreed to sell some of his outlying land to a neighbour. The land in question housed an old outbuilding that was not part of the sale, so the farmer decided to demolish it and reclaim some of the materials.
To this end he recruited his nephew, who came over with a digger and set about knocking the building down. After the roof came off, a false wall was revealed at one end, obscuring a secret room. The wall was immediately knocked through and the farmer determined to save the room’s wooden floorboards. The floorboards were duly taken up… and a small basement room was discovered underneath containing a stash of around 200 old bottles. The bottles were lying on their sides, packed in with turf and covered with a thick layer of what was first thought to be mould or decayed turf but was later found to be sphagnum moss, which Islay fans will know to be the precursor to peat.
All this was related to us by the farmer’s nephew, who made the discovery and is acting as the vendor. He had bought the bottles from his uncle and taken them to his friend’s house near Bushmills. This friend undertook some research and realised that the bottles could be of considerable interest and value to whiskey fans. Sadly, a number of the bottles had been broken during the retrieval from the outbuilding; of the remainder, which were still considerable in number, several of the bottles whose corks had deteriorated were opened and drunk – with mixed results, as we shall see later.
As we examined the bottles some things became very clear. Firstly, that they had to be genuine: the corks were intact (though some were leaking) and were clearly very, very old – all were heavily shrunk inside the bottles’ necks.
The bottles themselves are similar to each other but no two are exactly the same. All are very crudely handmade, with various styles of applied lips and lots of flaws in the very dark glass. Many verge from irregular in shape to downright wonky, with bulges and lumps – some can hardly stand up on their own. In most cases, the glass becomes darker towards the bottom of each bottle, which makes the job of estimating the colour of the contents much more difficult.
The corks are mostly black and crusty at the top, and shrivelled almost to wood inside, which made opening the bottles very difficult. Needless to say, neither bottles nor corks bear any brand names or maker’s marks, and none of the bottles have any trace of labels.
What conclusions can we draw about this find? The style and manufacture of the bottles themselves are consistent with 19th century methods according to a leading authority on old bottles, who estimated them to have an approximate time frame of between 1840 and 1860. Taken with the lack of labels, this time period strongly suggests to us that the spirits inside were most likely homemade, presumably by a local moonshiner or by one of the farm’s 19th century occupants. There is nothing to suggest that any of the bottles have any commercial or legal origin.
While the Tatlock & Thomson analysis confirmed the sample they tested was whiskey, the historical context and the variations in style of the contents of the bottles we tried means that for caution’s sake we prefer to call these bottles moonshine; while we are sure that everything we tried was (or had once been) a distilled spirit, we cannot guarantee that all the bottles contain what we would now call whiskey, especially as we cannot vouch for the ingredients, ageing period or origin of the contents.
There are so many questions about these fascinating bottles. When exactly were they made and when were they stashed away? How many different batches were there? What kinds of casks were used to age the spirit, and for how long? Did the same person make all this spirit and what kind of equipment was used? How has the liquid survived for so long despite the bottles being stored on their sides?
The fact that these questions can never really be answered satisfactorily adds mystery to the find, which is of itself hugely significant for Irish whiskey. The discovery of this remarkable haul of moonshine, most likely distilled almost two centuries ago and hidden away soon afterwards, is a big milestone in the annals of distillation in Ireland. Each of these bottles is a time capsule, representing an extraordinary snapshot from the past: a period soon after the creation of the Coffey still, when whiskey in Ireland was made both by massive urban distilleries and by hundreds, or maybe thousands, of small-scale illicit operations spread throughout the country’s rural interior.
This was a time when demand for Irish whiskey was enormous, but the (legal) whiskey industry was recovering from a decades-long struggle caused by the disastrous 1779 Distilling Act and the long-running war between the excisemen (the so-called ‘gaugers’) and the moonshiners that had come to dominate whiskey production.
At the time these bottles came into being, legal distillation in Ireland was just recovering after the 1823 Excise Act improved conditions for distillers, but although many former moonshiners had gone legit and licensed their operations, moonshining would still have been relatively common. In the middle of the 19th century the Irish distillers also had a new enemy in the form of the Coffey still, which had met fierce resistance in Ireland but had been enthusiastically adopted by the Scotch whisky industry to create the blended whisky that would take over the world.
In that context, it was fascinating that the Tatlock & Thomson analysis found that the sample they tested could possibly have contained ‘maybe a proportion of continuously-distilled whiskey’. This would seem counter to our moonshine theory, but as the analysis said it was only a possibility we didn’t feel we could rely on it too heavily – and of course, even if it was continuously-distilled that wouldn’t mean it was necessarily Scotch! In the end, this possibility just added to the mystery surrounding the contents of these bottles, but we feel that on the balance of probability this may be a red herring.
In any event, there’s no doubt that the Tyrone collection is a truly unique find: whiskey from a much-romanticised but often brutal and problematic period when moonshiners were losing control of an industry they had dominated outside of the large metropolitan areas, where urban distilleries produced the world’s most sought-after whiskey. As a result, this haul is of significant historical importance, and we anticipate a lot of interest from collectors and enthusiasts within Ireland itself and around the world.
Most importantly, what can this find tell us about the character of mid-19th century Irish whiskey? We tried five samples of the spirits with the vendor, with three being recognisable as whiskey (although of differing quality and strength); sadly, the other two were greatly deteriorated and we couldn’t know how they had originally tasted. Nonetheless, the fact that any of the spirits were drinkable at all was both surprising and greatly encouraging.
On our return to Blackpool, with the vendor’s permission we opened several more of the bottles ourselves to find out more. These samples were selected with the aim of trying a broad range of spirit colours and filling levels. Tim F provides the tasting notes:
Sample 1: Clear Colour, High Neck Level
Nose: Faint fabric notes like cloth or wool, some wet newspaper notes.
Palate: Certainly not whiskey strength. Like a watered down new make, mostly hay or grass, wool, some papery notes. A bit ‘muddy leaf’.
Finish: Short, papery.
Comment: Best guess is that this was an unaged poteen, but it seems that almost all the alcohol is gone.
Sample 2: Medium Gold, Level in Neck
Nose: Like a lighter Speyside; some grassy notes, honeysuckle, faint green apple peel aroma. Some alcohol prickle suggests higher strength. Later develops freshly laundered linen, honey, bandages, faint camphor and sweetpea.
Palate: Tastes strong, medium-full body, astringent, growing heat. Fruit flavours, some varnishy notes, apple flavours – almost like Calvados or eaux-de-vie. Some cooked fruit notes in the background. Tastes youngish but with plenty of flavour.
With water: Sweeter, fruitier, some lighter esters. Earthy & heather notes in the background.
Finish: Dry, warming.
Comment: A lot better than we could have hoped for. This is actually remarkably fresh for the age.
Sample 3: Deep Gold, Below Shoulder
Nose: Like an old school sherry casked whiskey, and not a million miles from an old Speyside – those varnishy, furniture polish acetone notes, some old stale fruitcake behind. Fruit shortcake biscuits. Faint marshmallow and glazed nutty aromas. Dark balsamic vinegar notes in the background. Develops prune juice and very faint turfiness.
Palate: Akin to the nose but more intense pruniness. Some savoury bread and nut notes, drying tannin, raisins, then turf again.
Finish: Medium length, sweet. Doesn’t swim well.
Comment: The level was a good two inches below the shoulder, but somehow a very palatable spirit has survived.
Sample 4: Rich Gold, Half Full
Nose: A bandagey, medicinal note but also the pruney, sherry-esque fruitcake note similar to Sample 3. Some burnt raisin aromas, dense fruitcake, flapjacks / oatmeal, concentrated stewed apple and faint varnish.
Palate: Quite warm, fruity and earthy – much more earthy than the nose suggested. Heat and power suggests high strength despite the very low level. Cooked fruit and brown sugar. Water releases more prune and dark berry notes.
Finish: Warm, drying. Turf and boiled sweets, dried mud, burning turf. Very earthy, dry soil, with a lingering sweetness.
Comment: A lot better than expectations, retaining plenty of character.
Sample 5: Medium Gold, 20% Full
Palate: Muddy water, undrinkable.
Comment: Obviously spoiled.
Sample 6: Pale Gold, Bottom of Neck.
Nose: Fresh & youthful, but seems powerful. Green apple, some sour aromas, faint Branston pickle. Water lifts raspberry leaf and berry fruit sweets.
Palate: Warm, tight, astringent. Big, powerful alcohol bite. Some clove and white pepper. Cooked apple and sweet chilli jam, going into glue, resin, varnish – quite estery. Water releases more sweet, fruity and fruit jelly flavours.
Finish: Not too long, but warming and dry with fading fruit and conserve flavours.
Comment: Another powerful, youthful one with a lot of character. Swims well.
What a privilege it was to try these marvellous old spirits, even if not many of them would stand up in a blind tasting against the best of today’s Irish whiskey. With artefacts like this, the real value is of course in their historical significance and simple aesthetic beauty, but for a whiskey fan like myself, this was a priceless experience.
The remainder of these historic bottles will be sold in our December auction starting on Christmas Day – don’t miss your chance to own a very special piece of whiskey history!
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