Amazing day closed with some really amazing whiskeys – especially the Dair Ghaelach. Remarkable stuff.
Part one – more to come later.
I took part in the Dingle Distillery whiskey school – it’s a great way to spend a couple of days in an amazing part of the country. I highly recommend it. The article ran in the Irish Examiner over the summer, but here it is in full.
If Oliver Hughes has a crystal ball, he isn’t telling – and as a former criminal barrister, his poker face is probably more resilient than most. But the evidence suggests that he might.
Exhibit A: Back in 1996, before micro breweries were becoming such an industry that they were getting tax breaks in the budget, Oliver and his cousin Liam LaHart decided to set up the Porterhouse. Oliver had seen the success of micro-breweries in the UK and decided the stagnant beer market here could do with some revitalizing. Many thought he was mad – the notion that a pub could survive without serving big brand beers on draught was completely alien. Some publicans began betting amongst themselves on how long it would last – six months, maybe a year. But last he did – in fact, the Porterhouse thrived, and expanded.
Exhibit B: Oliver had another idea – open a distillery. The current liquid gold rush in Ireland has seen big hitters investing here in the past 12 months, with up to 25 distilleries in various stages of development. But Oliver’s vision of an independent Irish distillery came long before the current boom. In fact, it was more than a decade ago that he first envisioned it. As for the reasoning behind his startling act of foresight: “Well distilling is actually a lot easier than brewing, so it just made sense,” is his reply.
‘Easy’ it may be, but he still brought in some expert help. John McDougall is one of the few people alive who has worked across all the whisky regions of Scotland and across multiple styles, and he helped design and set up the distillery. And as for its location, in beautiful Dingle, Oliver’s explanation is just as deceptively straightforward: “I came to Dingle with my then-girlfriend-now-wife 30 years ago and fell in love with the place, so it was perfect.”
But it isn’t just the romance of Dingle that makes a difference – the distillery sits next to the estuary of Dingle harbor, warmed by the briney, balmy airs of the Gulf Stream and the temperate microclimate it creates in west Kerry. Whiskey ages faster in the warmth here; and the barrels will absorb sea air, brushed by the occasional cool breeze drifting down from the mountains. Whiskey from Dingle will never be the same as whiskey from Dublin, or Belfast, or any of the other traditional centres of distilling in Ireland. Or at least that is what you would expect, as their spirit has not yet reached the three years minimum spent in a cask, a period which imparts almost 80% of the flavor.
All this detail may seem confusing to the average consumer, but Oliver’s distillery is hoping to educate the public on the who, what, why and when of Irish whiskey. The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy is two days of hands-on training in this most ancient – and Irish – of arts. What marks this academy out is the fact that it is entirely conducted within the distillery itself – as you are learning the theory you are also seeing it happen in front of you. This is no sterile classroom setting, far from reality– this is right in the beating heart of a busy operation. As you absorb the lore of distilling you are inhaling the evaporated spirit (known as the angel’s share), with lessons occasionally interrupted by the sound of clanking pipes.
The tutor for the academy is Michael Walsh, who at just 25 must be one of the youngest in the world to assume the role of Master Distiller. Most of the distillery staff are young men who would have emigrated if it hadn’t been for Oliver’s vision, a fact that distillery manager Mary Ferriter is quick to point out. Mary was our host for the two days of the academy – serving Dingle Gin and tonics during lunch on the lawn outside, next to the old waterwheel that powered the sawmill that once occupied the building. Mary is as warm and enthusiastic as you would expect from someone who once ran a year-round Christmas shop named Dingle Elf. Like all the distillery staff, Mary is a multi-tasker – she also delivers their award-winning Dingle Gin and Dingle Vodka to outlets along the peninsula, like a legitimate Dukes Of Hazard. On one run to Castlegregory we travelled over the Conor Pass, far above valleys littered with remnants of Famine villages, places so isolated they are almost cut off from the rest of the world. Even in this day and age, access to broadband is a problem down here. But the community understands the importance of banding together – they are all behind the distillery, and proud to support it.
Within Dingle itself there is a growing whiskey scene. Dick Mack’s pub recently won Munster Whiskey Pub Of The Year and then went on to win the national title – manager Finn MacDonnell the latest in his family to run the pub, founded by his family more than a century ago. It boasts an incredible array of Irish and international whiskeys, including a bottle of 1973 Midleton, a measure of which costs 200 euro. Many recession-scorched Irish people may balk at that price, but while I was there one American tourist paid the asking price and more in dollars for a single dram. Finn’s selection of whiskeys was co-ordinated with help from Peter White, a Dublin firefighter by day (and night) and whiskey guru by night (and day). Peter, the current president of the Irish Whiskey Society, frequents Dingle a lot, as his mother hailed from the village, and is just one of the whiskeyvangelists promoting our national drink out of sheer love for it.
Another enthusiast is John Moriarty of The Park Hotel Kenmare and Dublin Bar Academy, who is also one of the tutors in Dingle Distillery. John and Michael work like a tag team, talking us through the history of distilling, from Irish monks adapting Mooirsh alchemists’ equipment, to the revolution of the column still, the rise of blends, the decline of Irish whiskey in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and on to the present day – which is seeing Irish whiskey become the fastest growing spirit in the world. They also talked us through the lexicon – single malt, pure pot still, wort, mashtun, draff, feints, low wines, cuts, non-age statements – and on to the different types of cask used.
We also got to fill a cask each – not to take home sadly. Putting a hose in a barrel and pulling a lever might seem like a straightforward task, but this writer still managed to spray the exterior of the barrel, himself and the master distiller in one fell swoop.
But as the last module of my two-day experience at the academy, I think I still graduated. As for the Dingle whiskey, we will just have to wait – it reaches legal age at the end of this year, with a release expected early next year. But you don’t need a crystal ball to know that as the first independent Irish whiskey in a long time, this is going to be one special release.
The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy runs on the following dates: August 12th & 13th; October 27th & 28th; November 18th & 19th; December 16th & 17th. The two days cost €450, while the distillery tour is €10 per person. For more info email email@example.com or call: 086 777 5551 or 086 829 9944.
I also made a ridiculous video:
More like Sons Of Wankery, amirite? Anyway, it’s this:
It was not so much the Angels’ Share, more the “Hell’s” Angels’ Share as Speyside Distillery crossed to the dark side to launch its new black whisky – Beinn Dubh – at Europe’s biggest Harley Davidson motorcycle rally today (30 August, 2015).
The single malt was unveiled to over 3,000 motorbike enthusiasts who gathered in Aviemore in the Cairngorms – the home of the tiny boutique distillery – for the annual Thunder in the Glens event.
Speyside Distillery CEO John Harvey McDonough says there was no better platform to launch Beinn Dubh than at the biker rally, which draws Harley enthusiasts and visitors from all over the UK and Europe.
He adds, “Whisky drinkers know all about the Angels’ Share – the term for the whisky that evaporates into the atmosphere during maturation – but with the launch of our new whisky at a motorbike rally, it’s possible that the angels who were looking over Beinn Dubh were wearing black leathers and biker boots.
“Visitors to Thunder in the Glens have been able to sample Beinn Dubh over the weekend, and the feedback is that it’s a heavenly dram. The colour of the whisky – a very rich ruby-black – has been a real talking point.
“We feel honoured to be part of this fantastic event. There has been an incredible atmosphere in Aviemore, and we are delighted that our new friends from Thunder in the Glens have been among the first people in the world to sample this new single malt.”
Beinn Dubh was the name given to Ben Macdui – the highest peak in the Cairngorm mountain range – by Professor Norman Collie after his solo climb to the summit in 1891. It translates from Gaelic as the black mountain – a reference to the mystical and spooky atmosphere Prof Collie encountered on Ben Macdui.
Speyside Distillery wanted to recreate the essence of the black mountain in a bottle, and Beinn Dubh was born. It gets its unusual colouring because it has been finished in toasted port casks from the Douro Valley in Portugal.
Speyside Distillers Ltd managing director Patricia Dillon says, “Like the mountain, the whisky is dark and mysterious. It is very much the whisky of the Cairngorms – the water used in its production is from the Black Mountain itself, and the malted barley is sourced locally.
“We are deeply passionate about the Cairngorms and our links to this area: the landscape, the history and the people are very much part of the distillery’s story. The Cairngorms is a truly magical place and I can understand why thousands of bikers come to Thunder in the Glens to ride through this beautiful area.”
George McGuire, rally co-ordinator for Thunder in the Glens, says visitors were intrigued by the brand new expression from Speyside Distillery.
“It’s a fantastic dram and the colour is so unusual; no one has ever seen anything quite like it. If any whisky was to represent the Cairngorms – this incredible part of Scotland where people come from all over to ride – then it is Beinn Dubh,” he says.
Beinn Dubh’s taste is deep and dark: rich fruits, currants and chocolate dominate at first, but these gradually give way to both bitterness and sweetness. Beinn Dubh is 43% ABV and the 70cl bottle has an RRP of £50.
Speyside Distillery near Kingussie has been in production since 1990 and is operated by Speyside Distillers Ltd. For further information about Beinn Dubh, visit www.beinndubh.com.
I was at Speyside Distillery earlier this year, so here’s a million photos:
To sum up, I am super important.
My article on the Spirit Of Speyside whisky festival in Scotland went into Saturday’s Irish Examiner, naturally they had to trim it as I had written The Lord Of The Rings, so I’m posting the full version here. I wrote a separate blog post about it here, which covers all the events I attended, and has tons of photos, but is not as ‘journalisty’ as this.
There is a large clock tower standing in the centre of the village of Dufftown in the Scottish highlands. Over the years the building has been home to the council chambers, a prison, and a place of execution – a role that earned it the title of The Clock That Hanged MacPherson, after it hosted the dispatching of a local Robin Hood-style highwayman.
And, despite being the most conspicuous point in the area, it once hosted an illicit whisky still. The Highland distillers were a cunning and canny lot, finding all sorts of ways to evade the taxman – which might explain why a perennially cute Kerryman was brought in to keep an eye on them. But Listowel native Maurice Walsh, famed for writing The Quiet Man, was swept away by the beauty of the place, finding inspiration for some of his best works – and finding a wife – while stationed as an exciseman, or gauger, on Speyside.
Standing in front of the clock tower on May 1st last as the snow fell around me, it wasn’t hard to see why he fell for it. Speyside is a Garden Of Eden for distillers. The River Spey languidly coils along the wide glacial plane of the valley, having made it’s way down from the snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorms mountain range. The limestone bedrock filters the water making it pure and hard, perfect for distilling, resulting in the area having the highest concentration of distilleries anywhere in the world, a fact that is celebrated in May of each year with the Spirit Of Speyside whisky festival.
Just as a distillery’s master blender can take disparate elements and use them to balance each other into a perfect harmony, the festival manages to combine distillery tours, tastings, food, drink, music, dance, crafts and outdoor activities to create an experience like no other.
I was in Dufftown for an important event in the local hall – a contest to decide which of four whiskies went best with a bacon roll. On a snowy morning in the Highlands, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to be doing – having four nips of great whisky and a bacon buttie at 10am. The famously temperate microclimate of Speyside doesn’t always reach into the mountains, so a warming drink and munchies were definitely the order of the day.
The event was organized by Mike Lord, a former comedy club host and one-time neighbor of Graham Norton, who gave up his job in the city to take on the Whisky Shop in Dufftown. Mike takes his whisky seriously – as he explained to us at the start of the tasting, there would be no ketchup or brown sauce in the bacon roll, as ‘this was science’. After we had made our choices – mine being a fruity, rosé-tinted, port-finished single malt – we strolled along to the Whisky Shop itself to take part in a blind tasting of seven independent bottlings – whisky that is purchased direct from the distilleries by independent firms. The store was packed with Americans, Germans, Scandinavians – but Dufftown is used to visitors from afar, for it was here that Sirius Black was first sighted after he escaped from Azkaban in the third Harry Potter movie.
After sampling the magnificent seven malts, we were magically spirited away to another scenic village – Aberlour, home to both a wonderful distillery, and also the Walker shortbread factory; a match made in heaven. The distillery was the venue for an evening of music and whisky hosted by Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, two former record label talent scouts, who guided us through a pairing of Johnny Cash, Carole King, Pink Floyd and David Bowie with whiskies that reflected both their music and personalities – and not a Proclaimers track in sight.
Aberlour distillery was founded by James Fleming, who not only made great whisky but also engaged in much philanthropic work – a fact reinforced by the venue of another musical event later that evening. The village’s James Fleming Memorial Hall played host to Charlie McKerron, who has won numerous awards for his both his solo fiddle-playing and work with Scottish trad supergroup Capercaillie.
Gaelic trad is much like our own, evidenced by McKerron’s references to The Chieftains, Donal Lunny, Gerry ‘Banjo’ O’Connor and Seamus Begley. The similarities between the two cultures strike you everywhere you go – the word ‘fáilte’ means the same in Gaelic as in Irish, we both say ‘sláinte’ for ‘cheers’, and while they spell céilí ‘céileadh’, the dancing is much the same, albeit a bit more frantic. I had a crash course in Gaelic dancing at one of the festival’s ceilidhs, held in the cooperage of GlenMoray distillery in Elgin. The cooperage was also the venue for the opening gala, at which I opted to wear a kilt, which quickly became a crash course in how to get out of a car whilst preserving your dignity.
Over the course of the festival there were many incredible meals, but the cask-strength dinner in Scotland’s oldest working distillery was one of the most special. Strathisla distillery in Keith is one of the world’s most beautiful distilleries, and was the venue for an evening of incredible food and drink. The menu was specially commissioned from Eric Obry, the chef and owner of the former Dufftown restaurant, La Faisanderie, and was inspired by the single malts from Chivas Brothers’ Speyside distilleries. One of our hosts for the evening was a man who is the personification of Scotch whisky; Charles MacLean; author, raconteur and Master Of The Quaich – a rare honour bestowed on those who celebrate Scotland’s national drink, which Maclean does with every fibre of his being.
Maclean has a soft, purring Scottish accents – he could read the phone book and you would consume each word. The Quaich of his honorary title is a shallow drinking bowl used ceremoniously by the Highland clans – it comes in all shapes and sizes, and the larger ones used in presentations looks like a slightly compressed Sam Maguire Cup. It’s pronounced like quake, with a slightly softer ch sound. Pronunciation can be tricky with Scottish words – a helpful Scot I met on the flight from Dublin to Inverness was quick to correct me on my attempt at Moray (it’s pronounced ‘murry’). However, I found the shoe was on the other foot when I visited Speyside Distillery. We met with the owner, John Harvey McDonough, who upon learning where I was from told me he was once in ‘Yockal” (Youghal) for the potato festival.
Called ‘the secret distillery’ due to it’s remote location, Speyside Distillery is possibly one of the best known distilleries due it being the location of the fictional Lagganmore Distillery from the long-running BBC series Monarch Of The Glen.
Harvey-McDonough spent 20 years in Taiwan, and the look and feel of Spey whisky reflects that, with a long elegant look more akin to a perfume bottle. And with both whisky and perfume, scent is everything – a lesson we learned in Gordon and MacPhail in Elgin. The outlet is the stuff of legend in whisky circles, with famed writer Michael Jackson (not the King Of Pop) saying that it is possible that there would be no such thing as single malts if Gordon and MacPhail had not kept buying and bottling malts as they have for the past 120 years. In an upstairs boardroom we were talked through the essential elements that you could encounter when nosing (a nice word for sniffing) whisky. We had to identify scent from little jars – honey, mint, heather, oats, aniseed – and once we had tuned in our olfactory organs, it was on to a blind tasting of five malts, which we were asked to try and categorise based on region of origin, strength, age, cask type and, if we were up to the challenge, which distillery the drams came from. I scored 7/25. Clearly I need to spend more time drinking whisky.
Gordon and MacPhail also own a distillery, and it happens to be one of the places that Maurice Walsh was stationed – Benromach. We took a walk through the distillery and saw how their particular style is made. In comparison to many, Benromach is tiny (it has a staff of three), but its independent spirit makes up for its size.
Also punching above its weight is the newly reopened Glen Keith distillery. Located a short stroll from its sister distillery Strathisla, Glen Keith has maximized modern production techniques to a point where it only needs one person on site to operate it. But tasting it, it is every bit as authentic as any boutique craft spirit. Another distillery with a deceptive appearance is Tamdhu, a post-war development that is stark in its functionality. In a land of chocolate box scenes of hand-built distilleries, it is curiously modern – but its product is fantastic, and testament to what the firm calls their ‘can-dhu spirit’. We had a tasting with recently appointed distillery manager, Sandy McIntyre and recently retired distillery manager, Sandy Coutts, sampling from their hand-picked single casks – a couple of fantastic whiskies that prove, in distilleries as in life, it really is what’s on the inside that counts.
A distillery that merges form and function with a keen eye on heritage, Ballindalloch is part of a 25,000-acre estate overseen by the aristocratic Macpherson-Grant family. Incredibly, Maurice Walsh had a connection to this clan too, having an aunt who married into the Macpherson Grant family.
In the distillery, a converted farm building redeveloped to an incredibly high spec, we met with the Laird, Oliver Russell, and his wife Clare, the Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire. They welcomed us with three drams of their private reserve of rare Cragganmore whiskies, and spoke about how the distillery was officially opened by Prince Charles and Camilla two weeks earlier. The family plans on issuing an eight-year-old as their first release, so the world will just have to wait for Scotland’s first single estate dram. As the Russells pointed out, their family has lived on those lands for 500 years, so they can wait another few years for their whisky to be just right. However, we did get to try some of their new-make spirit– it had a rich, banana milk feel to it, suggesting a bright future for Ballindalloch.
The estate is also close to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last family-owned firms, the rest having been snapped up by drinks giants like Pernod or Diageo. George Grant, the current head of the Glenfarclas clan, hosted a tasting event in the Mash Tun in Aberlour, a popular spot during the festival. One of the most striking things about the festival was how accessible all the distillery workers and owners are – be they operators, owners, Highland Lairds or whisky legends – they are not hidden away in dusty boardrooms, they are there in the pub pouring your drink, chatting about their plans, their hopes for the future. It was Alan Winchester, master distiller of the mighty Glenlivet, who told me about Maurice Walsh and his links to the area, and how Walsh’s grandson Dr Barry Walsh went on to become master blender with Irish Distillers, and is one of the men credited with laying the foundations for the current rebirth of Irish whiskey. Our respective distilling industries have been at loggerheads for more than a century, with the Scots lording it over us for much of that time – but this is changing. Irish whiskey is booming now, as Scotch is slowing. But a trip to Speyside is a reminder that our countries and their national drinks have far more similarities than differences, despite the odd skirmish. The Scots and the Irish have faced each other on the battlefield many times – Skerries in 1316, the Battle of Benburb in 1646, or even the massacre in Murrayfield in the last Six Nations – but the Speyside festival is a wonderful reminder of the unifying essences of our kindred Celtic spirits – good food, good company, and great whisky. And that’s something worth toasting; Sláinte!
Where to stay:
Our base for the festival was the Laichmoray Hotel in the ancient cathedral city of Elgin. The beautiful Victorian building is now a family run hotel that offers excellent food and a bar with more than 150 malts. Other venues include the recently renovated Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, or the Craigellachie hotel, which recently entertained guests like Noel Gallagher and Kate Moss.
One journalist I spoke to recommended flying into Edinburgh, ‘hiring a powerful car and driving up to Speyside via a disused military road in the Cairngorms National Park’. If you’d rather a more direct route, FlyBe goes from Dublin to Inverness daily, while you can also fly into Aberdeen, as the airports sit on either side of the region. Flight prices change depending on date of departure, but do remember to pay the extra for a bag, as you will most likely be bringing home several bottles!
While public transport in Scotland is excellent, a car is the best way to get about. You can, however, trek overland from venue to venue. At almost every event we attended there were large numbers of Dutch and German tourists in hiking gear. If you are driving with friends, most of the distilleries and events offer small sample bottles for the designated driver, so they can collect the whiskies and enjoy them later on.
The hidden gems:
Close to the confluence of the Fiddich and Spey rivers sits a little piece of history. The Fiddichside Inn is about as oldschool as it gets. Owner Joe Brandie is a former cooper who took over the running of the pub after his wife passed away some years ago. The pub itself has been there since 1840 and is a no-frills establishment – no carpet, no food, but a massive array of whiskies. Also well worth a visit is the whisky line, a vintage train that only travels during the festival. It goes from Keith to Dufftown along a disused track once used by the distilleries to transport goods, and is staffed entirely by volunteers who used to work it.
The huge variety of events means that ticket prices vary; many of the distillery tours and a lot of smaller events are free, while the tastings are often reasonably priced, ranging from stg£10 to stg£20. The more exclusive events such as the cask-strength dinner in Strathisla cost up to stg£90. For the non-whisky fan there are also many craft events such as tumbler carving, wood turning and glass blowing.
See spiritofspeyside.com for the full line-up for 2016 closer to the time.
Footnote that didn’t go into the paper: Much of the information about Walsh came from the book ‘Maurice Walsh: Storyteller’ by Steve Matheson. I think it is out of print, but your local library – which goes back considerably farther than the internet if you are doing research – has it in stock.
I actually contacted the chief archivist of Chivas Brothers to see if I could get a photo of the cupboard door in Glenburgie that has Walsh’s name carved on it, but it seems the door may have been lost to a series of renovations. Here are a few pages of the book, it is well worth a read if you like whiskey, and sher who doesn’t? They are out of synch, but so am I.
Stupid puns! Copyrighted images! Spelling errors! Wow I have got it all! And would you believe I created these masterworks on an outdated South American page-drawing system that nobody uses anymore? IncrediBILL!!!
The launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale in the Oliver Plunkett late last year. And from today’s Irish Examiner:
The Franciscan Well Brewery, on the North Mall, won two golds, a silver and three bronze medals, adding to 23 previous major awards in the past two years.
The brewery won the double gold for its Franciscan Well Jameson Stout and its Summer Saison, while it won silver for Franciscan Well Jameson Pale Ale.
The Franciscan Well Jameson Stout had been borne out of a collaboration between Dave Quinn, master of whiskey science at Jameson, and Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well Brewery, in Cork.
Together, they explored the effect a Jameson whiskey cask would have on a Franciscan Well stout. Shane adheres to a strict, 100-day brewing process, to deliver the perfect balance of taste and aroma and a rich, smooth stout, fit for all occasions and with an ABV (alcohol-by-volume content) of 7.8%.
For the second consecutive year, Franciscan Well Jameson-aged Pale Ale claimed a silver in the flavoured beer section.
It is also a collaboration between the whiskey masters at Jameson and the brewing innovators of Franciscan Well, and was developed by Mr Long using Jameson Whiskey casks handpicked by Mr Quinn. This resulted in a smooth, rich and refreshing ale, with unique flavour properties.
Shout-out to Dave Quinn, who I met at The Academy Presents… here in the Irish Whiskey Academy recently, and shout-out also to Shane Long, who I met at The Housewarming here in Midleton Distillery, and one last shout-out to the girl I lost my virginity to, who used to work in the Franciscan Well about 20 years ago. Fond memories of sobbing over the bar after she dumped me for the assistant manager of the drive-thru McDonald’s in Douglas, who had a large (for the times) collection of CDs, all of which were soundtracks. Thankfully none of the beers from the Well are as bitter as me.
I actually think that’s an e. I worked as a chef for two and a bit years after leaving school and I can confirm that using those little chocolate pen things is hard as fuck. What that chef has done is the equivalent of the Book Of Kells, only an edible version which is therefore vastly superior.
And now for some learning: The Mad Monk craft beer pub in Midleton sits adjacent to the CoI church, St John The Baptist. But it is also the site of the original Cistercian monastery founded by monks from Burgunday in about 1100AD, which gave the town it’s actual name – ‘Mainistir Na Corrann’, the monastery by the weir. It was the British (wasn’t it always) who decided to name the town after the fact that it was halfway between Cork and Youghal.
‘I can no longer see’.
Call me Ishmael, that is one giant goddam lobster. He is down in Midleton Farmer’s Market right now if you want to go down and salivate over him.
‘We’re going to need a bigger sauce boat’.