The end of the beginning

It’s hard to say if 2017 was what you would call a great year. It was certainly one of changes – we settled into our new home (my old home) and learned to adapt to terrible broadband (PS4 games take a week to download), rubbish windows (we all wear parkas indoors) and beautiful scenery (it overlooks a distillery). For my family it was a lot to take – my kids were far from their friends, my wife was basically operating a shuttle back and forth from Midleton – sometimes up to 12 trips a day – and they all had to cope with a father lost in grief. But things got better – after avoiding it all my life, I started driving, which saved my wife at least two trips a day, and things have generally moved on and become less bleak since I posted this on January 1st of this year. 

I still work in a hospital, something that I love. To simply be able to be kind to people in need is incredibly humbling – even basics like giving someone directions, or walking them to their destination (it is a massive hospital) is an important part of making that person’s experience in the hospital as pleasant and positive as possible. Clerical staff like me have our own minor roles to play in patient care, and it isn’t all about crossing Ts or dotting Is – sometimes it’s about chatting to a patient about the weather, or parking, or Brexit. To be able to say, don’t be scared, it’ll be fine, is a great thing. And everything is always fine, in the end.

When I worked in the media I became desensitized to the suffering of others. I sat at a desk and helped sell grief and horror. Obviously, not all journalism is about car-crash rubbernecking, but much of what we call news is unnecessary voyeurism. The coverage of the Hawe tragedy was one that had me asking what it’s all about – what greater truth was going to be uncovered in the details plastered across every page, what lessons for society? I’m not saying I was any different when I worked in papers – as a sub it was my job to make these stories as dramatic as possible using words and images, so I was just as much part of the grand harvester of sorrow as anyone. I can still remember the thrill of a tragedy happening on a slow news day, when you knew you had it for the front page before anyone else. In the end, newspapers are a commercial product – everyone has bills to pay, everyone has an owner, and everyone is selective about what they consider to be the truth. Clark Kent didn’t change a goddam thing in his day job.

One of the most curious parts of the period after my father’s death is just how creative it has been. A piece I wrote about caring for him and preparing to say goodbye ended up being the springboard to a strange sort of renaissance, and ultimately ended with me getting a weekly column in the Irish Independent, which I am contractually obliged to tell you sells 90,000 copies a day and is one of the biggest selling papers in the country. I try to explain it to my daughter as being like having a blog with 90,000 followers. She is duly unimpressed.

Apart from that, I have written more for the Irish Examiner, the Indo and even just this blog than I ever have, as I slowly worked my way through the grief. All this meant that even though I was working two jobs, both were very fulfilling – the hospital is rewarding in a very human way, while the writing has been both cathartic and, obviously enough, a boost to my own self esteem at a time when I suffering a sort of professional midlife crisis. I also like the extra money, as it allows me to buy a decent bottle now and again without feeling like I was stealing from my kids’ piggy banks.  

This brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Obviously, one post this year stands out – the publication of a long-overdue post on transparency in Irish whiskey. I have another long-form follow-up piece on that topic, so I won’t waste my breath on it here. Suffice to say, it was a conversation that needed to be had. I don’t really care how many brands there are, or where they come from – I care where they don’t come from, and I don’t want us all to look like fools.

Irish whiskey is booming – sales continue to rocket, distilleries are getting over the line with funding and planning, and – a sure sign that we are entering the golden age – Whiskey Live Dublin is going to be a two-day event next year. This year’s event was packed – more stalls, more punters, more fans, more nerds.  We even have our own Irish whiskey glass, the Tuath, two magazines, growth in the Irish Whiskey Society (and an incredible year for the Cork Whiskey Society, who put on mind-blowing tastings with extinct drams), and more and more whiskey fans on Twitter, and presumably, that toilet of the soul, Facebook. Irish whiskey sales are even at the stage where multiples are starting to take note.

It was Whiskey Nut who noticed it first – Aldi were going to be selling a 26 year old single malt for under fifty euro. It had to be an error, I thought – this was presumably a Bushmills, of the same age as some of the (presumably) Bushmills that Teeling sell for hundreds of euro. How could it be this cheap? I had to find out. So on the day of the special buys, I was in Aldi Wilton at 10.25am practically frothing at the mouth. There was no sign of it. Could it have sold out, I wondered? No, it had never arrived, a staff member informed me. I left….only to return at 4pm. Still no sign. Over the following week I visited four Aldi branches a total of seven times. I could see on Twitter that others up the country were getting them – ‘that’s more of it’ I thought to myself. ‘The metropolitan elite being catered for’ I realised. ‘The pricks’ I mused.

Of course, it was not that Aldi hates Cork people (everyone else does, presumably out of jealousy or possibly because of the accent), but a logistics SNAFU at their Mitchelstown hub. I know this as the good people of Ballyhoura Mushrooms told me, proving what I knew back in the Nineties – that mushrooms bring enlightenment. Eventually, Cork stores got the whiskey, and I selfishly bought five. One was a gift for my goddaughter, another for a friend, one was sold to a fellow whiskey fan from Dublin (I flipped it for fifty euro, clearing a cool profit of one cent), and the other two are there on a shelf, staring at me, judging me for my greed. They are my tell-tale heart. Of course the saddest part of the whole escapade was my son being dragged from Aldi store to Aldi store to beat the customer quotas, leading him to call me an Aldiholic, which is both impressive and more than a little depressing.

There was one rare whiskey that I didn’t have to work quite so hard to obtain. Two weeks ago I came home to find a package on the front door. A gift from my neighbours, the good people at Irish Distillers. I’m not sure what I did to deserve such a generous gift; or what I might have to do. Part of me is now concerned that one day a message will come from IDL that they want me to go back in time and kill Aeneas Coffey, or egg Andre Levy’s house. Frankly, I’d do both for free.

I’ve got a few bottles of MVR over the years, most of which I have regifted. It is just too expensive for my tastes. I don’t have much disposable income and there is something obscene about spending that much on a bottle of booze. My cut off for whiskey is about 120, max; I recently picked up a 21-year-old Ardmore for 90, but that was too good a bargain to pass up.

But, despite the price, MVR sells like hot cakes. Part of that is the vintage aspect – it is used as a marker for weddings, births, business deals, promotions, graduations; it is a stamp in time. When the bottle relaunched earlier this year I pointed out that, while I didn’t like saying anything was ‘just a blend’, MVR was that – a blend. But while it is a blend, it is also a product of its time. When first released in 1984, it was genuinely rare as it included spirit from the old Midleton distillery. Obviously those days are long gone, unless there is one of those cask circle offerings that date back to old Midleton. Matt Healy has an excellent post on the history of MVR – it’s well worth a read, not least because of the comments section, where people queue up to ask Matt how much their various vintages are worth. It’s a testament to what a nice guy Matt is that he doesn’t do what I would have done and told them all to JFGI (Just Fucking Google It). 

Part of the reason MVR was the world’s first premium blend was one of necessity – Midleton don’t officially make malt (they do now in the micro-distillery), so a world-class single malt was not something they could bring to the table. They had aged pot still whiskey stocks – but back then, who knew what that was? How would you sell that as a premium drink, when category awareness outside of whiskey geeks was basically nil? So they brought out a premium blend, and it has gone on to become one of the best known whiskeys from Midleton, outside of the triumvirate of Paddy/Powers/Jameson.

So MVR  is well-made, well-aged and well-marketed. But is it any good? Guess what, this post – much like my childhood drowning story became a review of Laphroaig QC, my story about Storm Ophelia became a review of Teeling Brabazon II, and my piece on Converge became a review of A’Bunadh – is about to awkwardly segue into a whiskey review.

MVR 2017 comes in two versions – the oldschool edition for collectors who want to continue the line, and the new, disruptive remodel that I got. It comes in a beautiful wooden box, all copper seams and tasteful design, and looks well worth the pricetag.

Pouring it, I am hit by how thick it is, and how guilty I feel about drinking something that costs this much. On the nose lots of cloves and cinnamon, hot cedar – and less oomph than I expected. I feel like the weight just isn’t there – but this is once again with the obviously prejudiced mindset of someone who uses phrases like ‘just a blend’. There is also that soft sweetness of Haribo strawberries, but sadly none of the toffee/caramel notes that get my sweet tooth jonesing. On the palate – before any real flavour there is that incredible smoothness. This is that smooth Irish they talk about – velvet, creamy texture, possibly aided by a disappointingly low ABV of 40%. Honestly, everything should just be 45% upward. I don’t care if it makes the drink less like the soft kiss of moonlight and more like Pompeii is happening in the middle of your face, I love that holy fuck effect you get from strong whiskey. It’s the pupil-dilating suckerpunch I crave, it makes you sit up and take note of what’s happening.

With the MVR, that smooth, oily glide makes way to reveal a little caramel, biscuity notes, a little plum, but then I get that from almost every whiskey.  Very light hints of vanilla, but really more of that freshness from the nose. It’s surprisingly light and eerily drinkable. I poured a single dram for tasting and was onto a generous second in no time; this isn’t science, guys, no need for laboratory conditions.

The finish here is deceptive – you think it’s all over, but there it is, reverberating away in the background for some time. Again, this is just so smooth, it is remarkable. While I would favour a Redbreast 21 (or possibly even the CS version of the 12) over this as a personal choice, this has a luxuriant grace that is hard to find fault with.

MVR calls itself the pinnacle of Irish whiskey – back in ‘84, that may well have been the case. The entire category was struggling to survive. But this is 2017, and the pinnacle, we now realise, is yet to be achieved. MVR has been overtaken by the Dair Ghaelachs and, if I’m totally honest, the Connemara 22 year old, which is a beauty, or any number of other great Irish whiskeys. But MVR has what other brands aspire to – an aura that has permeated the consciousness of the average consumer. It is the ideal gift for a collector or for anyone as a special gift to mark a special year.

As for the premium blend as a concept – I honestly don’t think we can unseat the Scots without a single malt that will reshape how whisky drinkers see Irish whiskey. A world-class, world-beating single malt – and we are more than capable of this. For a small nation, we excel at adapting (a skill learned through centuries of brutal oppression). Look at our attitude to rugby – the garrison sport, the one the outsiders play. Ten years ago we took on our old foes England at their own game in Croke Park. Mountain-made-flesh John Hayes cried during the national anthem. We crushed them 43-13, and suddenly rugby is an Irish sport.

It’s all very well to say single pot still whiskey is the greatest drink on God’s green earth, but not many outside of Ireland understand it. It’s like hurling – we know its bullet-time mayhem makes it one of the most skillful games in the world, but to outsiders it is – as described in Blitz –  a cross between hockey and murder. Single pot still whiskey is amazing, but to grab the attention of the world we could really do with a jaw-dropping single malt – much the same was Japan suddenly became the one to watch thanks to Yamazaki. It’s an oversimplification, but the point is that we can be the best again. It’s not about sales, but respect.

So that was 2017 for MVR, Irish whiskey in general, and my family and I. Some good moments, some bad, but overall a positive year, one for regrowth and resurgence. My hopes for 2018 are the same as last year – that multinationals stop playing pass the parcel with Bushmills and actually invest some time, money and vision into what should be our Macallan/Glenlivet/insert global scotch brand here. That place has the stocks, the brand, the staff – it has everything. So why is it so hard to let it shine? Red Bush, are you fucking kidding me? The name alone makes me want to pour it down a drain. With looming Brexit, confusion over what sort of border we are going to have, and a lurch to the right over on the mainland, it’s time to embrace Bushmills as the prodigal child of Irish whiskey that it is. This isn’t some nationalist rant – NI is a phantom limb, and we need to let it go – but I am saddened by how one of the great distilleries of this island has been allowed to languish. I know I’ve said this several times before, but I’ve spoken to a few people who worked there in both marketing and production, and they said the same – no owner has loved that distillery like they should have. That isn’t right.

Aside from that hopeless hope, I’d love to see more Irish whiskey bloggers in 2018. I don’t fit that bill, as virtually everything I write is about really only about myself, with whiskey having a sort of walk-on part in my existential crises, so it would be great to see more blogs like Liquid Irish, still one of the best food and drink blogs in Ireland. More voices, more diversity, more people with the knowledge of whiskey to celebrate and, more importantly, defend the category from itself.

Here’s to better days, better drams and those unscaled peaks.

3 responses to “The end of the beginning”

  1. Looking forward to your wry take on the whiskey world of 2018.
    It’s building up to be some year.

  2. Another great post and beautifully written as always.

    However, I absolutely disagree with you about where Irish whiskey should be aiming. Malt whiskey is not the answer.

    I’m not always in the mood for a richly fruity, thick, chewy dram, but when I am there’s nothing better than Pure Pot Still. In my opinion (Scot, whisky retailer, and therefore possibly biased in the matter of malts) it makes little sense for Ireland to try and do a Japan when the industry already has an amazing secret weapon ready to go.

    I suspect that for many producers the problem is how to explain their whiskey. For example, I bought a bottle of Writers Tears the other week, and nowhere on the box does it properly explain what’s in the bottle. It’s a while since I’ve had a bottle of Redbreast, but I don’t recall much useful information there either.

    Pure Pot Still / Single Pot Still / The mix-of-malted-and-unmalted-barley-which-is-urgently-in-need-of-a-marketable-name. Whatever you call it, *that’s* the future for Irish.

    • Bill Linnane – Midleton – Freelance writer. Bylines: Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, Irish Tatler Man, Evening Echo, The Spirits Business, Distilled. Proud owner of the award-defying TripleDistilled.Blog, Ireland's Least Successful Blog™.
      Bill Linnane says:

      Good points Rod – pot still whiskey is probably no harder to explain than single malt, but it’s often the case that it gets explained via its differences from single malt – ‘Scots use all malted barley, while we use a mixed mash’. So single pot still is often defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. I’d love to see it take off like it should, but I think a world-beating single malt would definitely turn some heads.

      Love a drop of Writers Tears, but agree that the ‘copper pot’ bit doesn’t always shed much light. This piece by David Havelin shows the complexities of its category –

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