Today in ‘Things I Was Actually Invited To’

NO REPRO FEE 12/01/2018 Kilkenny Whiskey Guild. Pictured at a Kilkenny Whiskey Guild (KWG) tasting event are (l to r) Eddie Langton, KWG and Langton’s Hotel; Cyril Briscoe, KWG; Paddy Purser, Forestry Consultant; Dave McCabe, Midleton Blender; Ger Buckley, Midleton Master Cooper; Jim Rafferty, KWG and The Dylan Whisky Bar; Kevin O’Gorman, Midleton Master of Maturation; and Patrick Blunden, Castle Blunden, in celebration of Irish Distillers next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition. This exceptional offering has been finished in barrels made from Irish oak grown in the Bluebell Forest of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

Agmondesham Cuffe was quite the operator. As detailed in Turtle Bunbury’s excellent work on the Irish aristocracy, Cuffe knew which way the wind blew. Cuffe disliked the policies of James II, who had plans to make Ireland a Catholic stronghold, as per the plans of the Catholic Earl of Tyrconnell, who wanted to strip the Cromwellian planters of their lands. James II did not take well to Cuffe’s attitude, and stripped him of his lands and titles, which included that of Mayor Of Kilkenny. But Cuffe did not have to wait long for his revenge – along came King Billy, ousting James II and restoring Cuffe to his land at Castleinch as thanks for helping to secure the Protestant succession. Cuffe became MP for Kilkenny in 1695, in an election that saw him cheat his way to a win. Whilst in this parliament, Cuffe played a blinder – as Bunbury puts it: Among the acts Agmondesham would have voted on were those forbidding Catholics from sending their children abroad for education, from owning arms or horses valued at more than £5 and from becoming solicitors. During this time his young son Joseph attended Trinity College Dublin. One wonders how often father and son met and walked together upon the muddy streets of the medieval stronghold that would one day become the second city of the British Empire.

This post isn’t about Cuffe’s sons, but rather his daughter Martha. She married the MP John Blunden, and their son became Sir John Blunden, First Baronet of Castle Blunden in Kilkenny. And this leads me, as almost everything does, to whiskey.

The Dair Ghaelach series of whiskeys from Midleton are excellent – innovative in their use of virgin Irish oak, with true depth and flavour that – even for a notorious cheapskate like me – justifies their price, somewhere in the region of 200 smackers. The initial release came from Grinsell’s Wood; here is some sweet delicious press release from three years ago that explains the background:

Midleton Dair Ghaelach, meaning ‘Irish oak’, is the result of a six-year exploration by the Midleton Masters into using native oak to mature Irish whiskey. Led by Master Blender, Billy Leighton, and Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation, the project had two prerequisites. The first, was to ensure that all Irish oak was sourced exclusively from sustainable Irish Oak forests that could guarantee both a long-term supply and the re-generation of native wood, while the second was to explore what new taste profiles could be created from Irish oak maturation to craft a new and outstanding Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.

In collaboration with professional Irish forestry consultants, O’Gorman and Leighton selected Grinsell’s Wood within the Ballaghtobin Estate, Co. Kilkenny, to provide the oak for the first in a series of virgin oak releases in the coming years. Each bottle can be traced back to one of nine 130-year-old Irish oak trees in Grinsell’s Wood, which were felled in April 2012.

To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves under the watchful eye of the Midleton Masters. The staves were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato  cooperage in Jerez, where after drying for fifteen month the staves were worked into 48 Irish Oak Hogshead casks and given a medium toast.

At Midleton, a selection of traditional Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey distillates, matured for between 15 and 22 years in ex-Bourbon casks, were married together before being filled into the Irish oak Hogsheads. Leighton and O’Gorman nosed and tasted the whiskey each month and after almost one year, judged it to be beautifully balanced with just the perfect contribution of Irish oak.

Analysis shows that the Irish oak contains higher levels of some lignin derivative compounds, such as vanillin and vanillic acid, and furfural, in comparison to American and Spanish oak. These compounds further enhance the whiskey with vanilla, caramel and chocolate flavours, which are detectable on the nose of Midleton Dair Ghaelach and perfectly balance the classically rich, spicy Single Pot Still taste profile.

I don’t really care about the science behind it, but I loved this whiskey when I had it. According to those who have tried a few of them, they differ from tree to tree, which in its own way is another example of terroir. 

So the first experiment was a success, commercially and otherwise, and now we have another batch of Irish oak whiskeys, this time aged in casks made from the trees of Bluebell Forest on the Blunden estate. I was invited to the launch, presumably by accident as I am the Jar Jar Binks of Irish whiskey. I couldn’t go anyway, but thankfully there were the photos above and the press release below: 

Irish Distillers has unveiled the next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition. This exceptional offering has been finished in barrels made from Irish oak grown in the Bluebell Forest of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny, imparting a true and unique flavour of Ireland.

Dair Ghaelach, which is Gaelic for ‘Irish oak’, is the result of an eight-year exploration by the expert production team at the Midleton Distillery, County Cork, into using native oak to mature Irish whiskey and follows the release of Midleton Dair Ghaelach Grinsell’s Wood in February 2015.

In collaboration with expert forestry consultant, Paddy Purser, the Irish Distillers team of Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation, and Billy Leighton, Head Blender, chose Bluebell Forest on Castle Blunden Estate to provide the oak for the second edition in the Midleton Dair Ghaelach series. Each bottle can be traced back to one of six individual 130-year-old oak trees that were carefully felled in the Bluebell Forest in May of 2013.

Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation at Midleton Distillery, comments: “It is a joy to be able to showcase more of our experimentation with maturation in Irish oak through the release of Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest. The naturally sweet compounds found in Irish oak work in perfect harmony with this whiskey to deliver milk chocolate and honeycomb on the nose, a beautifully round and silky-smooth mouth feel and a long, pot still finish.

“The nuances in flavour in the two editions of Midleton Dair Ghaelach come from our native wood, and offer whiskey fans a true flavour of Ireland – the range has provenance unlike any Irish whiskey before it and we look forward to exploring more of Ireland’s woodlands further in the years to come.”

Bluebell Forest is found among the historic stone walls of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Since the 1600s, generations of the Blunden Family have watched over a stand of Irish oak trees with a carpet of luminescent bluebells covering the forest floor. The carefully felled oak from these woods imparts its character and nuances into Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest to create an intrinsically Irish whiskey with historical provenance, traceability and a clear link to the sustainability and rejuvenation of Irish oak.

To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves, which were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez. After drying for 15 months, the staves were worked into 29 Irish oak Hogshead casks and given a light toast.

The whiskey, made up of a selection of Midleton’s classic rich and spicy pot still distillates matured for between 12 and 23 years in American oak barrels, was then filled into the Irish oak Hogshead casks and diligently nosed and tasted each month by Leighton and O’Gorman. After a year and a half, the pair judged that the whiskey had reached the perfect balance between the spicy single pot still Irish whiskey and Irish oak characteristics.

Bottled at cask strength, between 55.30% to 56.30% ABV, and without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest is available from November 2017 in markets, including the US, Canada, Ireland, France and the UK at the recommended selling price of €280 per 70cl.

Here are the official Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest tasting notes:

  • Nose: Rich pot still spices are elevated by the clipped tannins of the toasted Irish oak. Fresh woodland character mingles with faint vanilla, giving the succulence of zesty pink grapefruit and pineapple along with ripe berries and green banana. The Irish oak influence imparts milk chocolate and honeycomb sweetness
  • Taste: Beautifully round and silky smooth with naturally sweet compounds from the Irish oak in harmony with the pot still spices. A touch of mango and kiwi bring some fruit undertones as the prickle of clove and cinnamon add their voice
  • Finish: Exceptionally long with soft sweet spices finally giving way to the proud Irish oak

Nothing tastes quite like proud wood.

The ability to create the Dair Ghaelach series came from the Irish Whiskey Technical File, which, unlike the rules guiding scotch, allowed for casks made from woods other than oak. To quote: Irish whiskey shall be subject to the maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 litres capacity. This allows IDL to use virgin Irish oak, or whatever they want. It is an edge over our cousins across the sea, and allows for some interesting innovation.

One piece of wording in the technical file, however, is somewhat regressive. I noticed it first on the Irish Distillers pot still website:

Then Googled it:

Then I realised where it’s actually in the technical file. 

Whatever I can say about our country’s relationship with the British Empire, using a landlord/tenant analogy is not it. I understand that this is a policy document, and needs to avoid incendiary language, but whitewashing the past is not helping the present troubles in the UK, where the Brexit omnishambles shows there is a certain amount of confusion over there about their relationship with us.  

I don’t get stirred up by much, but let’s not pretend that we were somehow paying rent to a benevolent and kindly ruler for eight centuries. You don’t have to dig very far into the history of the great houses of Ireland to find that beneath many of the foundations lie the bones of our ancestors; the Blunden link back to Agmondesham Cuffe is as good an example of this as any. So perhaps ‘landlord’ could simply have been replaced with something equally beige but a little more accurate, like ‘former colonist’ or simply ‘former ruler’. 

Obviously, had I made the launch in Kilkenny I find it highly unlikely that I would have brought any of this up with the current resident of Castle Blunden, Patrick Blunden, not simply because it would be rude, but also because he is six foot seven.

NO REPRO FEE 12/01/2018 Kilkenny Whiskey Guild. Pictured at a Kilkenny Whiskey Guild (KWG) tasting event are (l to r) Cyril Briscoe, KWG; Eddie Langton, KWG and Langton’s Hotel; Patrick Blunden, Castle Blunden; Kevin O’Gorman, Midleton Master of Maturation; Ger Buckley, Midleton Master Cooper; Dave McCabe, Midleton Blender; Paddy Purser, Forestry Consultant; Jim Rafferty, KWG and The Dylan Whisky Bar, in celebration of Irish Distillers next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition. This exceptional offering has been finished in barrels made from Irish oak grown in the Bluebell Forest of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

 

Ash Valentine’s, Nollaig na mBan, huntsmen, love

Week 37 of the column:

Rejoice, cheapskates of Ireland – the stars have aligned and for the first time in decades, St Valentine’s Day, February 14, is falling on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This is a true sign from the heavens that Jesus is a dude, as now none of us have to rush out buying chocolates or booking a table for two in a fancy restaurant, because this year the Lord has directed that we make do with some dry toast and a cup of black tea (no sugar).

Even in my godless house it was welcome news, as I still like to respect traditions, especially when they share my core belief of saving as much money as possible. I’m tempted to offer my vastly better half a lovely bouquet of rosaries, or relaxing ash facial at the local church, but instead I’m going to opt for what I get her every year – almost nothing. If that fails and she gets incredibly upset (highly likely), I can just tell her that she will get her real Valentine’s gift when Lent ends on Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 1st, meaning her actual gift would turn out to be the gift of humour, as I don’t really have any gift for her at all. April fools!

Her celebration of Nollaig Na mBan went well, despite me mistakenly telling an elderly relative who phoned looking for her that she was off out for Cumann na mBan, leading to concern among her family that being married to a struggling writer was having an ill effect on her politics. But even Agnes O’Farrelly would have been proud to know that first order of the night was that great tradition of Women’s Little Christmas – a strip show. However, this one wasn’t some gratuitous commercialisation of the human form – it was The Full Monty for charity, although I think any woman voluntarily being subjected to an undressed male is an act of charity in itself.

The charity in question was the fund for a local community playground, because of course a children’s play area is what you think of when you heard the words ‘live male nude revue’ – a sort of Full Montessori, if you will. It was all in good spirits and through hard work, dedication and a lot of baby oil, the lads raised enough (money, you pervert) for the playground to be built, which hopefully will lead to many puns about zip lines, swinging and seesaw-yer-da’s-arse. The end of my wife’s night was nearly as thrilling as the start, as she received a half decent proposal at the taxi rank. I had her forewarned that there is a special breed of man who pointedly goes out on Women’s Little Christmas – he has crunched the numbers and he realises that with all the men folk minding the kids, and all the wives out on the lash, statistically speaking his odds are way above normal.

And so it was at the taxi rank that the local lothario set his sights on her. He told her that, serendipitously enough, he had only just separated from his wife the weekend before, which sounded like a fairly lousy way to ring in the new year. It must have been like watching When Harry Met Sally while it’s being rewound. He also invited my wife back to the hotel he was staying in, which was a smooth play as it told her that he was as feckless with his wallet as he was with the rest of the contents of his trousers, whilst also letting her know that he was technically homeless, which is very chic right now.

Somehow she managed to resist his charms – and his invite to take a stroll down the darkest alley in Munster – and come home to me, so she could giddily tell me she has still got it, before guzzling an Alka Seltzer and falling asleep for ten hours.

When I worked in a local paper, there was an elderly gentleman who would write to the letters page. They were on a variety of topics, but it was the ones about his wife I remember, as they all followed the same formula. He would recall sitting on the bus or train next to this beautiful woman, they would chat, and really hit it off, they would get off at the same stop, and they would – plot twist – both go to put their key in the door of the same house at the same time, because – spoiler alert – the beautiful woman was his wife of 37 years. When I first read them I thought they were a waste of newsprint, but as the years go on I realise I am slowly becoming him. I don’t need the huntsmen of Nollaig Na mBan to hit on my wife to know that she has still got it – I tell her all the time that she is a genetic freak (in a good way) as she has somehow managed to stay the same despite me burdening her with four children, the domestic equivalent of the hobbling scene from the film Misery. She still shines like she did when I first saw her at the local fair in 1989. Of course if you lived within earshot of our house you could testify that it isn’t all smiles and sunshine. Our relationship is like plate tectonics – two land masses collide, there are angry earthquakes and sexy eruptions, but over time all the rough edges smooth away. That said, I don’t really understand how either plate tectonics or relationships work.

She didn’t need to wake me at 3am to tell me about her fun night out, as I was, as usual, lying awake waiting for her to come home. It’s not a conscious thing, but we both do it – you just don’t sleep right when you know the other one is out, because life can be cruel and fickle, and there is a sense of dread lurking within you that your little cocoon may someday go pop. Of course, it isn’t always some terrible tragedy, accident or mishap. We used to live near a block of apartments that was known locally as Bold Boy’s Corner, due to the high number of separated men living there. It was conveniently located next to a McDonald’s, and you would see the McDads there on the weekends with their kids, sad faces all round. My Women’s Little Christmas was a solid reminder that I am fortunate to have found somebody to love and who loves me in return, and who isn’t going to leave me for a fundraising male stripper or desperate single dad who lives in a hotel room. Perhaps I will just start Lent on February 15 instead.

 

Footnote: The chap who hit on my wife happens to be in one of these photos.  Just saying this in case I end up in a landfill.

Run, fitness, fatness, run some more

Week 36 of the column, in which I stare at myself naked in the mirror, crying:

The Rarámuri are an indigenous people who live in the mountains northwestern Mexico, in the Sierra Madre. They didn’t always live here – this is where they fled to when the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, and their remote location kept them safe from harm and from many attempts by various agents of ‘civilisation’ to homogenise their culture. It would appear that it was a wise move as many of their customs and traditions remain intact, such as the tesgüinadas, a sort of beer festival that they hold several times a year. Much of their social activity revolves around the tesgüinadas, which they hold to ask for rain, cures, or a good harvest. They also hold these festivals to mark Sunday gatherings, Holy Week celebrations, and curiously enough, race events. Despite having a thriving drinking culture, the most notable aspect of the Rarámuri is their ability to run – in fact the word Rarámuri, their own term for themselves, means those who run fast. While they do run fast, it is the distance they can run that is remarkable, as they seem to be natural-born ultramarathon runners. In May last year a 22-year-old Rarámuri girl, wearing a skirt, homemade flip-flops with an old rubber tyre for the sole, won the Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo, a 50-kilometre race through the mountains. María Lorena Ramírez had no special equipment, just a bottle of water, and she beat 500 runners from 12 countries. The year before, the goatherd came second in the 100-kilometer category of the Caballo Blanco ultramarathon in Chihuahua. But the success of the Rarámuri isn’t just about terrain – last November a Rarámuri family were finalists in the Polar Bear Marathon in Manitoba, Canada, where the temperature hit minus 20 C.

The Rarámuri are a reminder of the role running has had in human history, how we were able to use it to run from danger, chase down prey, and now, as we slowly eat and drink ourselves to death, it could be what saves us all.

I hated running, but I loved exercise. I started going to gyms two decades ago, and since then there were very periods when I did not train at least three times a week. While most people enjoy the social aspects of team sports, I loved the solitude of the gym, with my headphones on, working through stress and calories at the same time. But running was torture. About six years ago I realised that with a young family, the early morning was the best time to exercise, and that I would need to find a way to do it that was time-efficient, and non-dependant on gym opening times. I would, I realised, have to start running.

So I would be out pounding the road at about 5am. People used to look at me funny when I would tell them this – and, to be honest, when I would encounter another runner I would often think ‘what’s that quarehawk up to at this time of the morning?’ But in running I found a peace that I never found in gyms. Out there, with no-one around, I was all alone with my thoughts, in rain or ice or snow, hammering at the roads and enjoying the loneliness of the short-to-medium distance runner. I never ran more than five or six kilometres, and if I didn’t feel great, I would run slowly (or walk quickly), like you do in the office when someone holds a door open for you but are a bit too far away to it be be more mannerly than annoying.

While running may feel like torture when you start, you adapt very quickly, as you feel the athletic abilities hardwired in your DNA kicking in. Running is part of who we are.

There’s an old (scientifically inaccurate) analogy about boiling frogs – that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will sit there until it cooks. Gradual change doesn’t feel like change at all. And so it has come to my attention that I have put on weight. Over the last two years I stopped exercising. A change in work patterns and a slight injury to my hip saw my gym attendance and running both dwindle and eventually stop. Then, the final nail in my oversized coffin, I started driving everywhere. My relationship with food and drink changed, as sought more comfort in both than I should have. Life is like a box of chocolates – thanks to those little cards telling you what each sweet is, you know exactly what you are going to get, and if you eat too many, you’re probably going to get diabetes. I haven’t got it, but if I keep going the way I am, it’s only a matter of time.

All this has came to a head with me asking my wife if she had been using the tumble dryer more than usual as I thought my jeans might have shrunk. After she had stopped laughing and realised it was a genuine question, she pointed out that I was just getting old, and maybe it was time to get some more elasticated waistbands. Over my flabby body, I thought to myself. So it is that I face into the new year with the same resolution as everyone else – to live a little better, and a little bit more like the Rarámuri.

Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run, in which he spends time with the Rarámuri and tries to unlock their secrets, is a good inspiration. We may not all have their innate ability, but we can certainly learn a lot from their attitude to running. They don’t do it to win, they do it because they love it. They run in groups more than they do alone – the plethora of athletics clubs here would suggest this applies to all of us – and they also love those beer festivals – anyone who has witnessed an athletic club’s Christmas drinks will know that they aren’t exactly puritans. Neither do the Rarámuri need any high tech gear – you don’t need to break the bank to get state of the art trainers. When I started running I wore a pair of trainers I bought in Heatons for less than 20 euro. When I wore out the soles in them, I went back and bought another. Granted they may seem like high end equipment to a people who run in flip flops made from old tyres, but it shows that once you have the will, a high vis vest and a bottle of water, you can go at 2018 like Forrest Gump.