So I got to take part in the Irish Whiskey Academy here in my hometown, along with a bunch of whisk(e)y writers, bloggers and promoters. It was a lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in whiskey….and a grand to spare. This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner shortly before Christmas. The photos were all taken by me, which might explain why they are rubbish.
Every Christmas I watch Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the same sense of wonder I had when I was a kid. As someone cursed with a relentlessly sweet tooth, I still like to imagine that the inside of any factory that produces my favorite things would be as magical. Obviously tastes change and people grow, and after careful consultation with my cholesterol levels, I switched my allegiances to a more mature indulgence – whiskey. So to get access to a distillery is a treat indeed. The distillery is a mysterious thing. Access to any modern production facilities is a rare event; for members of the public it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of the inner workings of any plant; health and safety laws, Lean production and a wariness about transparency meant that unless you have Bosco’s Magic Door, you aren’t getting inside. But one of the greatest distilleries in the world is changing all that.
Midleton Distillery’s Irish Whiskey Academy opened in 2013, and since then it has educated and entertained hundreds of drinks professionals, writers, bartenders, and sales people. The scope of the academy is now being widened to include ‘amateur enthusiasts’ – or ‘lushes’, as we are better known – like myself. The academy building fittingly sits between the historic distillery building – now home to the heritage centre – and the newer plant which is one of the largest, most efficient in the world, having just tweaked their processes to see a reduction in energy requirements per litre of pure alcohol by a whopping 20%.
The academy itself is a converted grain manager’s office, and our tutor was Dave McCabe, whose youth belies his incredible breadth of knowledge. I was on the course with whiskey bloggers, writers and industry insiders, and no matter how obscure or scientific the question, he knew the answer. With beautifully illustrated chalkboards in the classroom section of the facility, he brought us through the history of whiskey – nationally, locally and globally – as well as a refreshingly straightforward breakdown of the production of whiskey in east Cork.
We started with a walkthrough of the old distillery, learning about how whiskey was produced on that site for 200 years. We passed the distiller’s cottage, where Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett was born and raised, through the courtyard where former distillery manager Sandy Ross landed after an exploding pot still blew him out a window, leaving him flat on his back on the cobbles. He was given the rest of the day off, but showed up for work the next day. It takes hard men to make the hard stuff.
Back in the classroom we covered the raw materials, as well as the brewing and fermentation process, then it was on with the high-vis vests, phones into the lockers and off to the new plant, where we visited the grains depot, brewhouse, fermentation facility, and even had a stillhouse meeting with current Master Distiller Brian Nation. Brian is a busy man, who switches between the scientific demands of running one of the biggest distilleries in the world and the promotional aspect of the job, sharing his knowledge and passion for whiskey around the globe. And he isn’t the only whiskey guru we had access to; we also met Kevin O’Gorman, a man who has so much energy and enthusiasm for his work that it’s hard to imagine him having the patience to watch a kettle boil. But patience he has. As Irish Distillers’s head of maturation, Kevin is charged with keeping watch over the thousands of barrels of alcohol as they slowly mature for the legally required minimum of three years – and often much longer. Kevin watches over the casks as they sleep through the years, monitoring room temperature as the wood of the staves slowly inhales and exhales the liquid, giving it colour, character and life. His domain is the warehouses packed with massive bourbon, port and sherry casks from around the world, loaded on pallets in lots of four, and then stacked seven high.
He watches on helpless as up to a percentage of each cask is lost to evaporation, an amount known as the angel’s share. As long as whiskey has been made, this has been part of the process. There is not way to stop it.
Another frustration comes in the repair of casks. Some of them simply can’t take the pressure of their sleeping brethren above, and begin to split. If the damage is small, and accessible to the master cooper, then it may be repaired. But if the split is bad, and the cask is behind or beneath many others, they simply have to let the pressure take its toll, and watch on as thousands of euro worth of whiskey seeps out. It’s can’t be an easy job.
We had a tasting with Kevin in one of the warehouses, number 42 to be precise, cracking open a port pipe, a sherry butt, and a bourbon cask. It’s hard to describe how special it was. There, in that vast modern cathedral, we filled glasses straight from the barrel, and stood there silently sipping, the only noise a sporadic beep from the security system off in the distance. The flavors of the whiskey was almost enough to make your ears pop.
Centuries ago, Irish monks copied the design of Moorish alembic stills to distill their ale into uisce beatha. Later, it was casked for storage, and whiskey as we know it was born. Not much has changed; the ingredient used by the epicurean alchemists in Midleton are the same – water, grain, wood and time. In a world obsessed with speeding up production, there is much to celebrate here. The race to the bottom in our demand for faster food and cheaper products has led to standards falling in both. Not so here – this may be a massive operation, but there is the same respect for the craft, the product and the consumer as there ever was. The academy is part of this celebration of tradition and technique – it has a level of openness, transparency and honesty that you will almost never encounter in large companies.
We rounded out the day with pot still tastings, then it was back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. Our lodgings were the aristocratic surrounds of the Castlemartyr Resort, a building whose history, like that of whiskey, is another rare blend of science and religion, having previously been home to Robert Boyle, of Boyle’s Law fame, and in later years becoming a Carmelite Monastery. Another part of the academy package is dinner in a premium restaurant – for us it was Ballymaloe, which so much has been written about I don’t need to add anything, other than it has to be experienced to be believed.
The following day we started with a coopering demonstration by master cooper Ger Buckley. Ger is a fifth generation cooper, and can take a barrel apart and put it back together in moments. He talked us through the craft and history of coopering, reinforcing the sense that little has changed in either the tools or the barrels themselves in centuries.
Afterwards we met with archivist Carol Quinn, who introduced us to some of the incredible characters, stories and history of Irish Distillers. She spoke about Paddy O’Flaherty, a consummate showman who understood the power of marketing and PR long before anyone else in the industry, to the point where the whiskey he sold took on his name – we even got to see the contract that allowed the company to use his name as a trademark. Carol is also recording the stories of the more recent characters, as she is recording an oral history of the formers workers in the Midleton plant, capturing all their stories and lore before it is all lost in the sands of time.
Then it was on to more tastings, site visits – including the spiritstore and casking facility – and lunch in the heritage centre, complete with ice cream cones served in Midleton Rare boxes.
Our last module was blending, where we were broken into teams of four and given four different types of spirits to make a single blend with. After much nose work, and even more tasting, my team finally came up with a blend of half sherry cask-aged pot still and half bourbon pot still. We even gave it a name – The Kurgan – which you will know from Scottish history as the Russian bad guy in Highlander. It even came with a tagline – ‘there can be only one’. Well, it was either that or ‘it will take your head off’.
We got samples of our blends to take home, and while I have yet to find the right occasion to enjoy mine, I have no doubt that the memories of an extraordinary few days in Midleton will last a lot longer. The lessons taken from the academy aren’t simply the science and the history of whiskey – it’s an appreciation of the drink itself, and what it means to the Irish people. Whiskey is liquid history. It records our highs and lows, our struggles and success, our innovation, creativity and strength of spirit. Its story is one of collisions and unions – between science and religion, alcohol and wood, empire and freedom, grain and water. The academy, nestled as it is between the past and future of Irish Distillers, teaches you how these elements blend together to make this most Irish of libations, its significance to our identity, and what is yet to come.
THE FACTS: A range of courses are available depending on the individual’s level of knowledge, with the first ‘Enthusiasts’ course taking place earlier this month. Participants have the opportunity to meet some of the distillery team, learn about brewing, fermentation, distillation and blending, watch a cooperage demonstration and enjoy a tutored whiskey tasting with one of the production Masters. As part of the package, participants will stay in five star accommodation, visit one of the area’s finest restaurants and at the end of the course, they will receive a personalised bottle of Irish whiskey.
One-day ‘Discoverer’ courses, for those who have minimal knowledge about Irish whiskeys but want to learn more, are available from February 2015 while four-hour afternoon courses are also available. See http://www.irishwhiskeyacademy.com/ for full details.