The Church of Whiskey
The final stop on our study tour organised by Bord Bia was at St James Church, Dublin. The ground has been the site for three churches; the original dating back to the 12th century. The graveyard also dates back to the 1100’s and the tiny piece of land which mearsures around 2 acres has held a 100,000 burials.
Prior to 1539 it was a Roman Catholic church and then converted to Church of England during the reign of Henry VIII. The penal laws came over with this, which meant there were certain restrictions on where Catholics could be buried i.e. not on consecrated land. However, over time exceptions were made (at a price) for Catholics to be buried.
Buried there is Sir Theobald (Toby) Butler (1650-1721), a leading barrister and politician in late seventeenth-century Ireland, who held office as Solicitor General for Ireland. He is mainly remembered for framing the civil articles of the Treaty of Limerick which are still studied at Trinity College today.
Another person of note buried at St James is Sir William Haldane Porter CB (15th May 1867–12th September 1944), a British civil servant who was responsible for the creation of the UK Border Patrol Force. William came over to Dublin to be Assistant Managing Director of Guinness even though he didn’t drink alcohol!
The third church that you see today was completed 1861-2 and de-consecrated in 1963 first becoming a vegetable store, then a hardware store and finally a lighting store.
The building became vacant in 2009 and was bought by Pearse Lyons in 2013. It was a dream of Pearse Lyons to have a distillery in the Liberties, a centuries-old neighbourhood, known for traditional pubs, weekend markets and tourist attractions. Christ Church Cathedral, with its medieval crypt, is nearby, as is Dublin Castle, the Guiness Storehouse, and Viking history can be explored at Dublinia.
The Golden Triangle
Inside the Liberties, nestled in a one mile radius is an area called the Golden Triangle, which at one time held close to 40 distilleries and breweries. Official records have revealed that Irish Whiskey production grew to some four million gallons in the 1820s. Of course, this did not account for the illegal Irish Whiskey that was also being distilled without permission. This small area not only produced whiskey and beer but the barrels it was stored in, attracting coopers from far and wide to this thriving area.
The four big distillery players at the time were George Roe and Company, John Power and Son, William Jameson and Company and John Jameson and Son. By the 19th century Irish Whiskey reached global appreciation as it was recognised as the premier whiskey due to its unique taste and smoothness.
Today, the Golden Triangle in the heart of The Liberties is making a remarkable revival. Pearse Lyons Distillery is proud to be part of the rejuvenation of this historic area of Dublin city.
The restoration was originally planned to take 18 months but turned into 4 years, as is often the case when trying to restore an historic building, especially, when that building happens to be a church. This was in part due to the bodies that were found under the floor which had to be exhumed and then reburied. Another reason it took longer was because Pearce Lyons wished to source materials that would be a close to the original as possible, including slate for the roof from a mine in Wales which was reopened to supply the slate.
Part of this wonderful restoration was the creation of these amazing stained glass windows that celebrate the crafts and skills of the Golden Triangle and this ambitious project to bring back Irish whiskey distilling into the triangle. They also celebrate the feast of St James and the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela.
Irish Whiskey has a long and interesting history. While the exact origins of Irish Whiskey are not known, ancient manuscripts reveal Irish monks practiced the art of distillation during the 6th Century. In the early days, the monasteries where the monks resided were at the centre of life and industry in Ireland. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, the monasteries prospered. However, from the 9th to 11th centuries, the Vikings invaded Ireland and destroyed the monasteries forcing the monks to flee to Scotland where they created new settlements, bringing with them the art of distillation, thus beginning the production of Scotch Whisky.
Mighty Molly & Little Lizzie
In 2011, Pearse Lyons transported two small-batch copper pot stills from Kentucky to Ireland and so began the adventure for Pearse Irish Whiskey. When the Pearse Lyons Distillery at St. James opened its doors in 2017, the stills had pride of place, nestled in the sanctuary of St. James’ Church illuminated by the warm amber light coming from the stained glass windows. When the stills arrived they were too large to be taken through any of the doors so they were lowered into the church via the steeple, which had been partially dismantled to repair structural problems.
They are an unusual pair of Kentucky small-batch copper stills, and their unique design gives Pearse Lyon’s Irish Whiskeys a special character. They were christened Mighty Molly and Little Lizzie in honour of the Lyons family’s distant relatives.
Mighty Molly is the wash still and her design includes a “neck and ball” configuration to assist in refining the spirit character in the first step of our distillation process.
Little Lizzie is the spirit still and is somewhat unusual as she has four rectification plates installed in her neck that further purify and refine the Irish Whiskey. The founder Pearce Lyon believes this special design helps to harness the fullness, complexity and refinement of the flavour. of double-distillation.
How do you make whiskey?
The process of making whiskey is initially similar to that of making beer.
STEP 1 – MALTING
Malted barley is a key component of whiskey production. Malted barley is produced by steeping raw barley in warm water for 40-60 hours at a temperature of 12-15 degrees in order to make the barley think it is spring time in its natural life cycle and the barley begins to germinate. Once this process starts the barley is then dried out so it can be stored for use. In Ireland they traditionally dry out the barley with a dry heat from a closed heat source. In other countries open peat fires are used and that is how “Peated” whiskeys are produced.
STEP 2 – MILLING
Milling is the process that grinds up malted and unmalted (if you are making pot still whiskey) grains into a rough flour called a “Grist”. This can be done on a hammer mill or roller mill.
STEP 3 – MASHING
The “Grist” is left steep in warm water for a number of hours to create a thin porridge like liquid. This process helps the conversion of starch in the grain into fermentable sugars. This sugary “wort” liquid is collected and is the base of the whiskey that is going to be produced. The left over grain from this liquid is called “Draff” and is usually used as animal feed.
STEP 4 – FERMENTATION
The wort that has been produced is then put into vessels known as “washbacks” and yeast is added. The yeast then consumes the sugar in the wort. The wort is now referred to as wash and, depending on the process, is about 8-12 percent ABV.
STEP 5 – DISTILLING
The wash is sent to the first of the pot stills and is heated. As alcohol boils at a lower temperature (78.5 degrees) than water it is the first to vaporise, exiting the pot where it is then cooled, collected and distilled a second and a third time if so desired. Ireland allows for double and triple distillation in whiskey making. At Pearse Lyons Distillery they choose to double distil.
Note: Whiskey is clear like water when it is distilled; the colour of Irish Whiskey like Scotish Whisky is developed through the aging process and colouration from the wooden barrels it matures in.
STEP 6 – MATURATION
Whiskey usually enters the cask at between 63-70 percent ABV. On average 30-40 percent of the whiskey’s flavour is created at the distillation stage. The other 60-70 percent of the flavour is created in the barrels. How long it has been aged in a barrel and what type of barrel used and what it was previously used for also has an enormous influence on the flavour profile of the end product whiskey.
The types of barrels used vary from reused wine barrels such as Sherry, Port and Madeira which would have been the traditional vessels for Irish Whiskey but in more recent decades the vast majority used are reused Bourbon barrels. While aging in wooden barrels whiskey undergoes six processes that contribute to its final flavour: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration, and colouration. Irish
Whiskey matures from anywhere between three years and a day to over 40 years. The barrels expand and contract with age and according to the temperature of the warehouse in which they rest. It is in reaction to this maturation process that the coopers play their most vital role. As the wood ages and the spirit within matures, cracks or other changes can appear in the wood. The coopers repair, maintain and protect the casks as they age.
Thomas Pearse Lyons
In the process of transcribing my notes for this article and doing futher research on the internet, I felt I ought to say a few words about its late founder Thomas Pearse Lyons (1944-2018). During the tour little was said about this modest yet driven man. Pearse Lyons, a Doctor of Biochemistry, was born in Ireland and moved to Lexington Kentucky in 1976 and with just $10,000 in 1980 set up a company called Alltech, using his knowledge of yeast technologies to improve the nutritional value of animal feed. Today Alltech is a $3 billion dollar business that is still owned by the family.
As Pearse Lyon’s success grew, so did his philanthropy setting up his non profit ACE foundation which help ranges from disaster relief to educational initiatives around the world.
After Pearce Lyons died in 2018 there was a great outpouring of emotion, people in different countries wishing to retell stories of this man’s many acts of kindness, big and small. From helping farmers around the world devastated by natural distasters, building schools in Haiti and the Philippines. Pearse’s spirit of giving is reflected in every corner of the world.
Pearse Lyons Distillery
So here the whiskey is distilled but then moved eslewhere for storage purposes due to lack of room for the barrels at the church. Of course, no self-respecting tourist destination can function without its own gift shop and I have to say Pearse Lyons gift shop like the rest of the church is very well done.
The Pearse Lyons Distillery produces some of Ireland’s finest small batch Irish whiskies and celebrates the Irish tradition of storytelling on each guided tour, I recommend you add this to your tour if you are in Dublin. As part of our tour we tasted various single malts, blended whiskies and even some of their gins, but my favourite is the 12 year old founders choice.