We’re all aware of the age-old sparring match between the Irish and the Scottish. The Scottish, of course, being jealous of the fact that the Irish were in the 8th-century world leaders in cultural interchange and innovation in military and transport technology….lest we forget that we introduced those skirt-wearing northerners to the benefits of writing as early as the 6th century*.
In their jealously then the plucky Scots decided that they would try to rewrite history and claim that they and not the Irish had given the world it’s greatest gift…Uisce Beatha or Water of Life which later became Whisky when anglicised. Well before all that, we Irish knew it to be called Aqua Vitae….because we were educated. In fact, this term was first penned in 1324 by the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede who also handily wrote his recipe for said aqua vitae down.
Fast forward nearly 700 years and a local historian, Fionnán O’Connor and curious bartender and cocktail magician Chris Hennessy managed to decipher De Ledrede’s recipe and Chris set about bringing it to the masses once again. So to better explain the projects life span I contacted Chris with a few questions.
Malt: Thanks for taking time out for us here at Malt Chris. You are well known within the Irish community but for the benefit of the Malt readership perhaps you could give us a bit of background on yourself?
Chris: I started off bartending in Kilkenny 15 years ago in a cocktail bar called Biddy Early’s. After 5 years of competing in different spirits competitions, I moved to The Dylan Whiskey Bar and became that head bartender there. We started off there with around 80 whiskies, predominantly Scotch as there wasn’t the variety of Irish whiskey available like we have today. For example, there was Powers and Powers 12 compared to having 5 Powers variants today, Jameson 12 and 18 back then compared to the huge portfolio of Jameson and Midleton’s now.
Every week we would add a new whiskey to the collection be that an Irish release or something say from the states like Three Gingers or airport exclusives like the Bushmills Caribbean 12-year-old as well as distillery exclusives & retailer exclusives. We also spent a couple of years trying to get the different Brand Ambassadors into the bar to talk about their products and show what was new, the typical things we are used to today but 10 years ago wasn’t so commonplace. This was aided by the Kilkenny Wine Centre which used to be owned by Liam Murray of The Cork Whiskey Society. Liam was one of the few people outside of Dublin who would get ambassadors to come down and host public and private tastings.
Malt: So you were really forerunners of what we see in Ireland today?
Chris: Yes….whereas these days they are knocking at your door and sending you messages to host something, back then it could take 3 months of chasing different reps to try and organise an event.
Malt: You are also a member of the Kilkenny Whiskey Guild. How involved are you with them?
Chris: So they have me as the Whiskey Ambassador for the Guild. There are 11 venues involved in the Guild as of this year. Each month of the year an individual bar will host a different distillery or a different brand to showcase, be it a standard whiskey tasting, food pairings or a cocktail night. For the first year, I acted as a liaison between the different venues and the different ambassadors to make sure that whatever was going on they could put their own personality stamp on it and give them ideas to enhance the event.
Malt: What was your driving force to create Aqua Vitae?
Chris: In doing cocktail competitions and making bitters, tinctures and liqueurs for years and years…it’s always been a hobby of mine, the curiosity of trying to make something from scratch and figuring out which flavours are the dominant ones, how you can draw flavours out.
Then I met Fionnán O’Connor who’s just absolutely brilliant history-wise. He handed over the facts of the recipe, where we could go see it and what it was and how much it would mean to the history of Irish whiskey. I was so curious about different flavours, where everything comes from and what it would taste like, to be honest!
The recipe itself pretty much predates any other reference we could come across. Roughly 1324 is when we have pinpointed it for. Ledrede starts the book (the Red Book of Ossory) in 1317 and finishes it 1360. The Annals of Clonmacnoise reference someone dying of overconsumption of aqua vitae in 1405 and the first reference to aqua vitae in Scotland was at Lindores Abbey in 1494. So the Irish were roughly 140 years ahead of anyone. Granted people may not have recorded their recipes beforehand but we are still trying to find any recipes that predate it.
It took 9 months to get the Latin deciphered and all the references deciphered and to make sure we were doing everything correctly. So for instance, part of the recipe is comprised of letters and numbers. Some of the letters were corresponding to weights. We had to make sure that the weights in the Vatican, in France and in Ireland correspond as these were the three places Ledrede was trained and they all differed, so we had to research these to get the weights correct.
We were researching each one of the ingredients involved, did they come over fresh, did they come over dried, powdered? As everything was coming by horse and cart at the time it could take up to 5 months to get something physically in your hand.
Malt: Did you run through many iterations of the product before it was finalised?
Chris: I was at the recipe for a little over two and a half years before I met Jarrod Cuffe from Off the Cuffe Bitters and at that stage, I had played with 14 different types of distillates. Each one of the botanicals would be laid down in its full form, dried form and powdered form….so at any given time I could have had around 80 different macerations. Kind of like tinctures, each individual thing would be in its own individual distillate, sitting in a small mason jar…..the smell in the room was deadly!
Malt: So how did your partnership with Off the Cuffe Bitters come about?
Chris: So when I was creating Aqua Vitae I was doing so very quietly, I wasn’t very public about it and had only spoken to a few whiskey ambassadors and historians about it along the way….one of them was Oisin Davis who took the Aqua Vitae to a bar a show a few years ago at this stage for a demonstration to help people learn about aqua vitae and poitin and then he would pour his whiskies so you could actually taste along the story as opposed to hearing a story about something you have never tasted.
A couple of months later, through that project, Kevin Hurley, who worked at Teeling at the time, was heading across to Imbibe in London and again did a demonstration of aqua vitae, poitin and whiskey….he had the grains, malts and pot stills all side by side and Jarrod just happened to be in London for Imbibe and happened to sit that class. Because he makes bitters, all the different botanicals and macerations in it really got him curious and he reached out to me when he got back to Ireland.
I went up to his workshop and walked him through parts of I do, he walked me through what he does with bitters and because of our backgrounds we were both very curious of how everything works flavour wise.
Jarrod has worked by himself at Off the Cuffe Bitters now for around 5 years making all different tinctures and different blends he knows….without even tasting anything I put in front of him he’d know where the high notes were gonna be, where the sweet notes would be and everything like that…and from the blends that we were putting together just for curiosity sake, where the two of us were tasting them, if a blend we felt like was missing something before we even tasted it, from my point of view I would recommend the spice notes and he was able to do the high notes….then we would taste them and put his information and my information together.
For example, say you laid something down right now where it’s just distillate and cloves which are very potent of a flavour, we would be able to have an educated guess that 30 days was perfect, 24 days is short and 36 days is too much. Between the two of us, we were very easily able to gauge when you are working with a dozen botanicals if you do 40 days long then this has to go in today, that goes in in 8 days, that goes in in 20 days and gauge the balance of flavours. So Jarrod was the perfect person to work with because he is really professional and he knows all the information that he needs to know about the botanicals…not just compounds, flavours, oils, moisture contents, biting points in distillates and weights. Everything he does is 100% organic so he sources the best botanicals from around the world…no preservatives or sprays etc because it’s going into alcohol. Everything that goes into alcohol gets drawn out which made the Aqua Vitae a little more expensive but the two of us wanted to do it from a historical point of view and so in the 1300’s everything was organic.
When it came to designing the bottles and the bag, everything that we were doing was just in sync. We wanted something that looked like a stained glass window so that you can think church but it’s not exactly religious. The Latin writing on the front is a nod towards the book…again it’s not religious, it just hints at it. The bags use a material they had back then and how they would have carried things as opposed to a box.
Malt: I really like the look of the bottle…I got a kind of apothecary vibe from it.
Chris: Yeah, that’s really what we were aiming for…something like people would have had back then. The only thing we had to compromise on was a screw cap because we didn’t know how the oils in the liquid, which are suspended in the liquid, would react with a cork lying on its side. So I have a bottle put aside lying on its side and one standing up so in 6 months time if the cork hasn’t affected it we’ll go with corks from there.
Malt: Final question, coming from a bartender background how would you use Aqua Vitae rather than just as something to sip on?
Chris: Well it was quite funny when we first produced it, Jarrod, because he has a cocktail background was he kept saying ‘we’re gonna have to make cocktails with this!’. I wouldn’t say I was point-blank refusing but I didn’t want to miss the trick of this being a history thing and I want people to try this side by side with whiskeys and poitin. But it was inevitable that we would have to make cocktails with it.
So when we were launching in Bar 1661 (in Dublin) one of the criteria that Dave (Mulligan) gave was that Chris is doing a bar takeover and you’re making cocktails with it. So from the very first night of people tasting it, they got a Tuath glass and tasted it neat and then picked up the cocktail menu. The main thing we did with it was a hot toddy using Aqua Vitae, honey, boiling water and the skin of a lemon. Extremely simple but from aqua vitae to poitin to whiskey everything has had a medicinal background and even today if you say you are feeling ill or under the weather, somebody will tell you to have a hot toddy. Your cloves, your honey, your lemon, sugar or whatever it is….the alcohol will break your sweat, boiling hot water takes all the dirt and bacteria out the water that maybe there, your honey and sugar for energy and finally your lemon or cloves for medicinal purposes. It’s been there since day dot!
From a cocktail point of view…when you mix it with sweet flavours like elderflower, orange and herbal liqueurs it will pull out a couple of different spices. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and allspice will be pulled out by herbal liqueurs and fortified wines. The sweetness from the saffron and raisins will come out with fruit liqueurs. No matter what big flavours, small flavours, fortified wines etc we mixed it with it pulled out something different as it has so much going on it anyway. Nothing spiked but it would just layer a little differently each time we added something to it and because it’s 50% abv, no matter what flavour you put on top of it, the Aqua Vitae isn’t going away.
Aqua Vitae is created using a pot still spirit that is 50% barley and 50% unmalted barley and is bottled at 50% abv. 100% organic botanicals are used and in the maceration process, you get all the flavours and sweetness. Nothing else is added…no colour, sugar or flavourings. It is hand produced, hand bottled and the bottles are hand labelled and is available through Off the Cuffe bitters for €50 for a 500ml bottle. Batch 2 has just been bottled.
I’d like to thank Chris for giving his time for the interview and for giving so much information about the product. Let’s get on to the tasting notes, shall we?
Aqua Vitae – review
Colour: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
On the nose: Very interesting. Aniseed, fennel, star anise, lemon and orange rinds. Marmalade, stewed raisins, sultanas and dates. Nutmeg, ginger and clove.
In the mouth: Pot still spice and barley grains. Sugary-sweet with honey and brown sugar. Ginger, clove, nutmeg and mixed peels. Dried fruit – raisins, sultanas and hazelnuts. This is essentially liquid fruit cake batter. There is also a brandy aspect too….green apples and cinnamon. The finish is pretty short on the tongue but the spice and alcohol last on the back of the throat. A real winter warmer.
Let’s be clear…this isn’t whiskey. But as a historical reference to what leads up to poitin and whiskey, it’s a brilliant window into the past. It may not be to everyone’s taste but I rather like it. Probably not something you will have two or three of in a row neat, I can see this being truly excellent in cocktails.
But where it comes into its own is that bridge between the past and present. It is liquid history and helps tell the story of how we have arrived where we have in whiskey production. It is a testament to the hard work that Chris, Gerard and others have put into creating this from scratch to help us appreciate where we have come from. Everyone should try this at least once if only for the history lesson.
*we’d like to apologise for Phil’s loose use of the facts.