These are the golden days for Irish whiskey. Not so long ago, laying your hands on a bottle of Irish whiskey that wasn’t plain old Jameson or Bushmills could feel like searching for that imaginary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Oh, how times have changed.
Today, Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing category of spirits in the world. Between 2002 and 2017, high-end Irish whiskey sales in the United States have increased by a whopping 4,975%, from just 9,000 cases in 2002 to nearly half a million sold in 2017. During that time, Ireland’s distilling industry has exploded from just three active distilleries to 18, with dozens more in the construction and pre-opening stages. Talk about a comeback story.
Pugilist Spirits Enters the Ring
One of the brands at the forefront of the Irish Revival is Pugilist Spirits, a collaborative project between American Steven Grasse and Irishman Flor Prendergast. Both have deep roots in the spirits industry. Steven is the man behind brands like Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, and recently founded Tamworth Distilling, an experimental craft distillery, in New Hampshire. Flor worked for one of Ireland’s largest distributors and has created several other spirits and beer brands.
Steven says Tamworth Distilling represents the culmination of his more than 20-year career in the spirits industry. There, he’s dedicated to skipping every shortcut he can. “It’s the purest expression of what we do,” he says. “Everything is completely scratch-made. It’s all from farms within 150 miles. We even have staff out in the forest picking berries.”
One night, Steven and Flor were having dinner in Dublin when the topic of Irish whiskey came up. “I always laugh that Irish whiskey was the vodka of whiskey,” says Steven. “And it would be great to do something more interesting with it. So we came up with the idea of sending spent rye barrels from America to West Cork and having them finish their Irish whiskey in those used casks. I was surprised it hadn’t been done before.”
Once the barrels arrive in West Cork, they’re filled with a combination of 10-year-old malt and four-year-old grain whiskeys to rest for another six months. The original idea was that rye barrels would give the famously smooth and clean Irish whiskey a distinctively spicy twist. “And it worked!” says Steven. “It’s a very unique taste without being overly complex. It’s a good sipper.”
The Prizefight Story
Now, all that remained was creating a name and brand for Flor and Steven’s new tipple. Inspired by their transatlantic collaboration, the two looked to history for inspiration, and became intrigued by the stories that swirled around early Irish immigrants to the United States.
One era and setting was particularly magnetic: the mid-1800s world of underground bareknuckle boxing. Irish immigrants were frequent competitors in illegal boxing matches in places like Baltimore, Boston, and New York. Working-class men had the chance to make big money if they could survive the brutality of the fight. “There was so much history in it,” says Steven. “All these badass Irish-American fighters were born in Ireland and came to America to find their fortune.” Plus, he says “Prizefight” just works great as a call. “It sounds so tough when you order it,” says Steven.
Each Prizefight release will commemorate a different fighter or event in the history of bareknuckle boxing. This first bottling celebrates the legacy of two infamous Irish-American boxers, Yankee Sullivan and John Morrisey, who fought one another in a storied illegal bareknuckle boxing match in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in 1853. Yankee Sullivan, like the whiskey in the bottle, was born in County Cork and had spent several decades as a criminal and prizefighter in England and Australia before arriving in the United States. By 1851, he’d secured the American champion title, as well as a reputation as being “unbeatable” in the ring.
John Morrisey had also been born in Ireland, immigrating to the United States with his family when he was a child. As a young man, he dabbled in organized crime before earning a fortune gambling with gold miners in San Francisco. Later, he returned to New York, ready to try his luck at bareknuckle boxing. He challenged Yankee for the championship title.
During their famous match, the two fought 37 rounds in front of 5,000 spectators in a makeshift arena outside the jurisdiction of Boston police. Yankee finally knocked John out cold, but the ensuing brawl between the supporters of each fighter eventually left Yankee disqualified and John named the new champion. Both John and Yankee are immortalized on the label of this rye-finished edition of Prizefight Irish Whiskey.
Even though he’s worked in the spirits industry for more than 20 years, Prizefight is the first Irish whiskey brand Steven’s ever created. He says he’s excited by the possibilities in the category. “I’m not a huge fan of peaty Scotches, but I’m a big fan of bourbon, rye, and Irish whiskey,” says Steven. “And for years, Irish whiskeys were just sold as big corporate whiskeys with a low price. So there’s a lot of room for Irish whiskeys to have different finishes and different malts. Everything we’ve taken for granted with American bourbons and ryes is definitely up for grabs in the Irish sector.”
Steven says successive releases of Prizefight will feature other fighters and other finishes, but they’ll always be built around the theme of collaboration between the United States and Ireland. We can’t wait to see what he and Flor come up with next.