Historian brings collection of long-lost whiskey recipes back to life

Whiskey historian Fionnan O’Connor & Boann Distillery are reviving historic Irish whiskey mashbills that date as far back as the 1800s

By: Tiff Christie|February 19,2021

Imagine unearthing a collection of long-lost Irish whiskey recipes and bringing them back to life for the first time in almost a century.

This is what has happened to leading whiskey historian Fionnan O’Connor, who wrote a thesis on the lost distilling process, who not only discovered the lost recipes but also wrote a thesis on the lost distilling process.


Whiskey historian Fionnan O’Connor wrote a thesis on the lost distilling process

The first casks have been produced, some made using ingredients – or mashbills – which date back to the 1800s.

“We’re talking to ghosts by distilling these mashbills again,” said the Dubliner (32) who plans an industry-wide sensory analysis of the reborn spirits.

Co Meath’s Boann Distillery, on the outskirts of Drogheda, took on the mammoth task of bringing the vintage mashbills back into circulation through its pot stills. Only 144 casks are being made available to the public.

It reintroduces the art of creating whiskey using malted barley, oats, wheat and rye, leading to a ‘tug-of-war’ between flavours depending on the varying grain percentages used.

The spirit is transferred into 200-250 litre barrels that previously housed bourbon, rum, NEOC (French red wine) and sherry, and matured for a minimum of five years in specialist warehousing.

The bulk of these mashbills haven’t been tasted in over 70 years and the earliest ones I’ve found come from the early 1800s

“The mashbills chosen are creating a map, a language about how all these things might have worked,” said O’Connor. “What was the reason for creating a mashbill? What was going through their heads when they were putting them together?

“There’s a lot of things you can do to whiskey to influence the taste. The bulk of these mashbills haven’t been tasted in over 70 years and the earliest ones I’ve found come from the early 1800s.

“It would be a shame if all that history and those flavours were lost. This project has been about making up for lost time,” O’Connor continued.

“Many people know the story of Irish distilling’s rise and collapse, but the story of the lost tastes and aromas, the knowledge that most of those whiskeys were different to ours, comes as news to most people.”


Michael Walsh, Head Distiller, Boann Distillery, with Fionnan O’Connor, whose thesis on lost Irish Whiskey mashbills led to the vintage recipes being brought back into production. (Boann Distillery/PA)

He first discovered the mashbills in archives in the Republic and Northern Ireland, and credits Boann’s courage in bringing them back into production.

The programme will culminate in the coming months with a gathering of 30 leading figures in the Irish distilling industry for a sensory analysis tasting of the mashbills and their ranking over a number of different criteria.

It will include experts from Ireland and Scotland and is in association with Heriot-Watt University’s brewing and distilling programme.

Boann managing director Pat Cooney said his family, which employs 15 staff operating three huge copper pot stills, wants to be seen as “one of the most progressive distilleries in Ireland”.

“Every mashbill tastes different, depending on whether there’s more barley, less malt, more wheat, less rye,” he said.

The family is also in the process of building a visitor centre, an online shop and launching Silks Irish Gin, named in a nod to nearby Bellewstown Races, running since 1726.

Boann is producing samples of each different mashbill, with an arrangement that customers can book their cask by paying a deposit and choosing their cask after tasting the various mashbills.

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