There are things that I miss about being in a newsroom. The flow of insider information, the unprintable story behind the story, the kernels of truth you occasionally stumble across. It is like an addiction – once gone from it, you feel the withdrawal, you realise that you are now on the outside. But that isn’t necessarily the worst place to be, and definitely not in today’s media, where low sales are driving a race to the bottom, with everyone now chasing MailOnline and Buzzfeed’s business models of listicles, flesh, rage-bait and endless repetition.
However, one of the best aspects of journalism is the access it gives you; it places you in a position of extreme privilege – you get into places you shouldn’t, get offered things you don’t need, and generally can live a larger life than your wages would suggest. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Two years ago I was sent to an event in my hometown distillery called The Housewarming. It was being held to celebrate the massive expansion of the local distillery, but beyond that I didn’t know much else. I’m not sure what I expected, but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of it. Walking through the arch into the main courtyard behind the old distillery was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly blooms into Technicolor, or the first time Aldous Huxley dropped acid; I was, like Adam, seeing all of creation for the first time. After The Housewarming, I was hooked, and have been writing about – and loving – whiskey ever since. And so it was that I was one of only a few journalists to be invited to both the launch of the new micro distillery and celebration of Jameson’s rocketing sales – five million cases plus in 12 months.
The events in the distillery are pretty special – almost everything they do is delivered in epic widescreen, and this was no different. The first part of the evening was the launch of the microdsitillery, which has seen distilling return to the old distillery site for the first time in 40 years. In fact, this year marked a triple celebration for IDL – parent firm Pernod Ricard turned 40, the new Midleton distillery turned 40, and Master Distiller Brian Nation also hit the big four-O (I also turned 40 in August, but since I was on the dole, celebrations were muted).
Over the past couple of years, an old storehouse was renovated and turned into a small scale distillery – but one which was still larger than many of the new independent distilleries being set up around the country in the past 24 months.
After a drinks reception in the courtyard, we were ushered in to hear IDL CEO Anna Malmhake, Tánaiste Joan Burton and ‘micro-distiller’ (note: not an actual term) Karen Cotter speak about the new venture. Anna acted as MC, and Karen spoke first, giving a speech about her path to this point, about the distillery, her mentors and what the future holds. Given her young age – just 24 – it was remarkable to hear her speak with such clarity and self-confidence. It reinforced my view that she will be a very bright star in Irish whiskey.
Then it was the Tánaiste’s turn. Deputy Burton spoke about how her ancestors were coopers, having grown up near Bow Street distillery, and also about how important it is to have gender balance in the workplace – be it at the cabinet table, or in the distilling world. Then it was over to the stills to switch them on, one by one, at which point they lit up in sequence.
Here is some low-grade audio of part of Karen Cotter and Joan Burton’s speeches:
Whilst there I chatted to local politicians Deputy Sandra McLellan of SF, David Stanton of FG and fellow journalist Tomás Clancy of the SBP. It was great to finally meet Tomás, as we both used to be part of the same media group, and also because he is a great ambassador for whiskey. I had seen him speak at Ballymaloe LitFest with Dave Broom and he was great, really knowledgeable without beating you over the head with it. Top guy, and the SBP is a great paper.
I also chatted to Richard Forsyth of the legendary pot still makers Forsyths – the Rolls Royce of post still makers. I had met him at the Spirit Of Speyside gala in May so it was nice to meet him on my home turf. Speyside is incredible – if you ever get a chance to visit there during the whisky festival, do so. You won’t regret it. The festival is one of the rare occasions when you can get a tour of the massive plant in Rothes. As a Scottish engineering firm their main business is oil and gas – which occupies about 300 of their staff, while the distilling operation has 60 or so working in it. There is an impressive drone flyover of the facility to give you an idea of what they do.
During the Spirit of Speyside festival the town also hosts a tattie bogle contest – local businesses create scarecrows and hang them off buildings or in windows. It is goddam terrifying, like something from Tales Of The Unexpected or The League Of Gentlemen.
Also there was Bernard Walsh, head of the IWA and one of the ‘real deal’ distillers in Ireland at the moment. He is the man behind Writer’s Tears, to my mind one of the stand-out Irish whiskeys, not just for its fresh aesthetic and great name, but just because it is a great drink. Bernard’s new pot stills arrived from Rothes last week, so it’s an exciting time for him, the culmination of many years of hard work.
Then it was off to the buses to be ferried down to Warehouse 11, a functioning storage facility that they had transformed into an incredible venue for the evening. About 350 guests filed in, greeted with Jameson whiskey sours, and then on a massive screen we were shown DJ Kormac talking about a commission he was given to create a track from the sounds of the distillery. He talked about his methods as they cut in footage from barley fields, and then he and singer Vivienne Long took to the stage to unveil their track. No wonder he is so skinny with all the frenetic work he does behind his electronics.
Then the screen lifted and we were in the venue proper, with names and tables assigned on a screen. Somehow I managed to locate mine, right up the front near the stage, perfect if i got carried away and wanted to start a moshpit or possibly stage dive onto some marketing people. The meal itself was spectacular, these massive outside events mean you need to set up mobile kitchens in the middle of nowhere and bus in an army of wait staff and chefs. Sometimes this can result in sub standard food, but not in this case; every part of the meal was incredible, really interesting food, beautiful, inspired presentation, and wait staff who were incredibly patient with my increasingly terrible banter: ‘Still or sparkling water sir?’ ‘Sparkling – LIKE MESELF’. I wonder how many times that poor person had to hear that jape in a single night. I was sat next to a member of the Irish Whiskey Association, which much like its Scottish counterpart is mainly involved in protection of intellectual copyright and maintaining the integrity of the Irish Whiskey brand. They make sure that you don’t end up with some low grade hooch from outside the country being passed off as ‘ye olde Oirish whiskey’ as it will devalue the entire category.
Also sat next to me was the Jameson Ambassador to Tokyo, a 23 year old Arts graduate from Wicklow, who possessed the rare (Irish) skill of being able to speak fluent Japanese. He spoke about his work, his projected aims and the brand’s target demographics. It was an amazing insight into a job that seems like it might be akin to being Duffman from The Simpsons, but is actually a lot more sophisticated, nuanced and involves a lot less booze than you would think. He has his work cut out for him – in a fast-paced and somewhat alien cultural landscape (one with a fantastic indigenous whisky scene), trying to attach yourself to the zeitgeist will be akin to catching a bullet between your teeth. But it will still be some incredible adventure for a young man.
Throughout the event there was incredible live music on stage – Lisa Hannigan, an orchestra playing popular classics (and grunge), and a harpist who would give Tony Iommi a run for his money.
After dinner we were treated to three new whiskeys from the distillery, each curated by a master – Master Cooper Ger Buckley’s the Cooper’s Croze, Master Distiller Brian Nation’s Distiller’s Safe and Master Blender Billy Leighton’s Blender’s Dog, three exclusive blends named after the respective tools of the masters’ trades.
We were asked to sample them, discuss and compare, which we duly did. Then the massive screens flared into life, and a short film about the trio began, showing them getting ready in their various domains, which then cut to a live feed of them walking into through the massive doors of Warehouse 11, all conducted to the strains of Arcade Fire. We toasted them, had a dram, and Hermitage Green took the stage, playing into the night.
CEO of Pernod Ricard, Alex Ricard, also spoke at the event. Last year he talked about the definition of craft and what it means. It has become increasingly obvious that craft, artisan and small batch are products of marketing teams and have lost much of their meaning. However, the consumer is getting canny – Templeton Rye was hit with a massive class action lawsuit over claims their whiskey was small batch, when actually it was sourced from a large-scale production facility. So when Midleton created a micro-distillery, they made sure to avoid the computer terminal controls you see in larger facilities, and instead opted for manual controls. The same goes for Ballindalloch in Speyside – they deliberately went for full manual controls to keep a down-home feel to their single estate distillery.
Alex Ricard posed the question – ‘what is craft?’ Is it the centuries that Irish people have been making whiskey, is it the incredibly history of the drink on this island, and at what point does a facility stop being ‘craft’? Is it a question of size and scale, is it to do with technology? Is there less craft in a large plant than in a garage-based operation? How is that so? Can a multi-national own a craft distillery – is it a question of economics? Most modern food and drink operations operate like pharma plants – is there a chilling effect in this system? Would you enjoy your drink more if you thought some chap made it in his shed? Or is it simply a question of aura, of exclusivity, of rareness? As a species we tend to hate the modern age, and yearn for some pre-industrial idyll that never existed; a simpler time when the noble farmer toiled the land before going home to read Chaucer by candlelight and die of natural causes at 40. We are bemused by the trainspotters and their passion for engineering – but not by people who go to art galleries. Modern engineering is a beautiful thing – be it the micro distillery or the bigger sibling that produces much of the world supply of Irish whiskey.
Mr Ricard also spoke about how everyone present on the night had a personal connection to Jameson – they have their pet names for it, their favourite way to drink it, their stories about how they started getting into whiskey. The jaded cynic in me might raise my eyes, but in a way he was right. Like Jameson, I am from Dublin originally, but spent the last 40 years in east Cork. My mother was a 19 year old from Sherriff Street in the north inner city, who grew up close to the old premises of Haig And Haig, and a few doors down from St Laurence O’Toole Church, supposedly built over old whiskey stores, which has led to the crypts still carrying a lingering hint of the angel’s share. She put me up for adoption, and after six weeks I was brought home by my mum and dad. After a brief stint in Kerry, we moved to Midleton, where my dad worked in the bank that lies just downriver from the distillery.
I grew up in a house overlooking the distillery, halfway between there and the new maturation sites in Dungourney. As a kid I swam and fished in the same river that they make all those incredible whiskeys from, and later I went to school just over the wall from the distillery in Midleton College. If you ever visit the Garden Stillhouse, see if you can find the sinkhole nearby, which leads to the underground stream from which the distillery takes some of its water. The stream travels under the wall and into the school grounds, and over the years pupils used to dare each other to travel through the pitch black cave network and up into the distillery – despite the fact that for some of the 50 yards or so you would be chest-deep in ice-cold water. My parents sent me to this expensive, private school – and they worked hard to pay for it. My dad loved whiskey – the first article I wrote for the Irish Examiner was about The Housewarming, but also about my dad, and in it I told this story: When I was about 10, my mother had a massive brain haemorrhage. She was given 24 hours to live. My dad went to the hospital chapel and made a deal with God – he would give up his beloved whiskey if mum pulled through. She duly did, and he hasn’t touched a drop since. She passed away nine years ago now, but he still won’t drink it as he says ‘a deal is a deal’.
It sounds like bunkum, but I like this story because it tells you the kind of guy my dad is. Part of my love of whiskey comes from him, and from suddenly having that strange epiphany when you realise that your dad is a great guy. He grew up in an Ireland that has thankfully almost completely disappeared – his dad used to come home, eat dinner, then go to the pub. His father once told him about the hilarity among his friends when they saw a friend of their’s pushing a buggy. Fathers back then earned the money and that was about it. The kids were women’s work. But my dad was always there for me, as I crashed headlong through life. Despite the fact that I often made terrible choices, he supported me no matter what. Whiskey to me is a symbol of all that is great about him – of being a good father, a good husband, a good human being. It represents the slow joy of growing old, of maturity. It’s about the simple pleasure of a mind-unclenching, blood-warming drink whilst surrounded by your family as they bicker about X Factor or try to figure out what the hell was going on in Age Of Ultron. It’s a celebration of making peace with this world. I have enjoyed constant privilege – from the luck of being a journalist to the childhood I had. I went down Sherriff Street for the first time this summer to see the old family home, to see where at least part of me is from. The area is a ghetto, fenced in by the ugly opulence of the IFSC on one side and, on the other, a canal, which once brought so much wealth and industry to the area, now filled with rubbish. While we were down there a child shot at the car with a BB gun. We didn’t stick around for long. It was a sobering reminder of how lucky I am, in all aspects of my life. I have tasted amazing whiskeys, seen amazing things and met amazing people over the last few years, and the event in Midleton last month was a reminder of all my good fortune – of growing up in the home of Irish whiskey, in a house filled with love and unopened bottles of Jameson, because, as my dad says, a deal is a deal.