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.