Why New York’s Dead Rabbit Is Crazy About Pot Still Irish Whiskey
New York’s famed Dead Rabbit bar is three-stories tall, filled to the brink with photographs, paintings, tchotchkes and bottles of whiskey. It draws you in like a warm hug and is so much more than just another New York cocktail bar. Since its founding in 2013 by Irishmen and now industry legends Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, the bar has not only racked up numerous awards, but left a significant impression on cocktail culture in New York and around the world.
Not only has its incredible drinks program fostered some of today’s most well-known bartending talent, but it’s also established itself as the most influential and important Irish bar in the U.S., giving it the pull needed to champion Irish whiskey, which has long taken a backseat to bourbon and Scotch.
Arguably one of Ireland’s greatest exports, single pot still Irish whiskey is now experiencing growth it’s not seen for more than a century. The Dead Rabbit boasts an impressive collection of well over 100 Irish whiskies that beverage director Jillian Vose says helps draw people in and gets them interested in the category. Vose has been slinging drinks and spreading the good word about Irish whiskey for most of the bar’s existence, and also helped shape two iterations of the bar’s award-winning menu. She sat down with us to chat about why single pot still Irish whiskey is important, how it’s making a comeback, and the best ways to drink it. Sláinte!
The Daily Beast: What is pot still Irish whiskey?
Jillian Vose: It’s a style of Irish whiskey that’s been made in a pot still at [a single] distillery in Ireland, and it’s made with a blend of malted and unmalted barley.
TDB: What have you noticed is the biggest misconception about pot still Irish whiskey in America?
JV: The category can be confusing because of its name. When you say single pot still Irish whiskey, that doesn’t mean it’s only made in one pot still. It’s actually a category of Irish whiskey. I really think that people with at least a decent spirit knowledge or who frequent bars are only used to seeing things like Jameson, Powers, and Redbreast. But they don’t even realize that they’ve been drinking pot still Irish whiskey for so long because they didn’t realize that Redbreast is the only really well-known single pot still Irish whiskey out there.
TDB: How popular was pot still Irish whiskey at the turn of the century?
JV: Pot still Irish whiskey would have been the quintessential style of Irish whiskey. If you asked for a whiskey highball, it would have been Irish.
TDB: Why did people in America stop drinking pot still Irish whiskey?
JV: What happened with the malt taxes in 1785 and the invention of the column still, with civil wars, with the potato famine, Prohibition—all these things contributed to the demise of Irish whiskey. After Prohibition, when things started to get back to [some semblance of] normal, people were used to this lighter style of whiskey because of the invention of the column still. It was cheaper to make grain whiskey and blend it into single malts or make blended Scotch whiskey. Then, all the distilleries [in the Republic of Ireland] shut down except for three—the Power’s John Lane Distillery, the John Jameson Distillery, and Cork Distilleries Company. They all came together to form Midleton in 1966.
TDB: Why is it becoming popular again?
JV: It was Midleton creating [the modern] Jameson, a lighter blended style of Irish whiskey, that really saved the category as a whole. A lot of people will turn their nose up to Jameson, but without Jameson, none of the rest of it would have been here. Midleton is the only distillery that continuously made pot still Irish whiskey, and it’s the only 100-percent pot still whiskey on the market with legit, properly aged pot still Irish whiskey.
TDB: Why is the history of Irish whiskey important?
JV: It’s that fighting Irish story—the rise, the fall, the rise again. If you look at any spirit or even a lot of cocktails, they’re all related to what was going on at the time, historically. Understanding pot still Irish whiskey is learning about the history of Ireland. I even learned a lot about the U.S. by learning about pot still Irish whiskey. How even one industry was affected by what was happening in America during Prohibition—it impacted the whole world. It tells a tale of history that is relevant to what we do now.
TDB: What’s the best way to drink pot still Irish whiskey?
JV: Definitely try it neat. Maybe add a touch of water, but I wouldn’t drink it over ice because you’re going to lose that silky texture you get from the malted barley. We’ve also done great cocktails with all the of the pot still Irish whiskies on the market. In some ways, because they’re a little bold and a little more high proof and they have so much flavor going on, they really complement other flavors really well. What’s cool about our bar is that we’re really pushing the category. I think with the success of the bar and having such a focus on Irish whiskey, it’s been great to be a part of the growth of Irish whiskey and really showcase the spirit through cocktails.
TDB: Is there a wrong way to drink pot still Irish whiskey?
JV: No. As long as we’re getting the conversation started and people are enjoying it, I’m not going to tell someone how to not drink it—but I do think there are better ways than others. The category, as Jack [McGarry] would say, was kind of pigeon holed. It was just a thing that you would drink on St. Patrick’s Day with a green beer and that’s bullshit. It’s really a lot more than that. It’s this beautiful, elegant, extremely intricate spirit. All the pot still [whiskies] on the market are all so different. You don’t want to mask the flavor or the texture too much by drowning it out because it is the star of the show when it’s in a cocktail. Make a Hot Toddy with it, make it neat, try mixing it into a sour.
Interview has been condensed and edited.