The perfect Finnish

Four years ago I interviewed a Corkman making whiskey in Finland – this originally ran in the Evening Echo in 2014, but as their whiskey is hitting the market I thought I’d dig it out. 

IRELAND and Finland have more in common than you’d think. Despite being on opposite sides of the European Union, we both punch well above our weight culturally — they gave the world the great composer Sibelius (and Eurovision metallers Lordi), we gave the world James Joyce (and Johnny Logan). And we both enjoy a warming drink during those long winter nights; we have whiskey, they have vodka. But one Corkman is about to change that, as he brings Irish distilling wisdom to what will be Helsinki’s first whiskey distillery in more than 125 years.

Séamus Holohan is one of three people behind The Helsinki Distilling Company, and he, along with two Finns, is bringing one of Ireland’s oldest traditions to the far edges of Europe. So how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?

“I’ll cut a long story short here but it was basically that I met my future wife in Paris many years ago, while studying and working after graduating from UCC with a BComm degree. When I finished studying in France, I wanted some more adventure and Sigrid, a Finn, had moved to Stockholm to study. So I headed up there with the intention of seeing what it would be like for six months or so. Eighteen years later — having started and sold three IT security companies — and after having three kids, I felt like it was time for something new.”

That something new was a world away from IT — the ancient art of distilling whiskey.

“For the past 10 years, I had a running discussion with two Finnish friends regarding starting a distillery and now it was good timing for all of us. The idea progressed from a fun idea to a concrete plan over the years. Eventually, having found a building to house the distillery, I moved over to Helsinki with my family and we started the business over a year ago.”

Séamus’s own interest in distilling was part inspired by another Corkman who left Ireland and created a drinks empire. In 1765, Killavullen mercenary Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy Cognac in France.

“My own interest in distilling started on a trip to Cognac during a summer holiday break during secondary school. With some friends, we visited the Hennessy factory and then went to see a small producer. The small producer, Balluet, was fascinating — everything from the raw materials to the distillation equipment, I found extremely interesting. And just as interesting was the manner in which the owner was really proud of what he was doing. To me, it seemed like something that would be great to do — to produce something concrete, a real product that you could take pride in. That desire never left me.”

But this isn’t the reckless pursuit of a dream — Séamus and his two partners have put a lot of work and research into this venture: “Mikko Mykkänen is our Master Distiller and has been involved in the production of alcohol for many years. I have experience of starting companies and we have a third partner, Kai Kilpinen, who is helping on the marketing side. Before launching The Helsinki Distilling Company, Mikko and myself embarked on a road-trip in Sweden to see many of the small distilleries that have appeared there making whisky over the last decade. It was inspiring to see the amount of energy that the owners had and it confirmed for us that there is a viable market for premium craft distillates.”

The whiskey renaissance back home also fuelled the vision: “I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTÉ that John Teeling gave a number of years ago, where he said many interesting things about the global whiskey industry, and also the Cooley distillery was a fantastic story.”

Despite the renewed interest in whiskey back home, Séamus knew that his family now had their roots down in Scandinavia: “It was never really considered to start the distillery in Ireland for family reasons.My kids love going to Ireland and have even spent some time attending school in Ballygiblin, but are more accustomed to Sweden and Finland. And since I have been working in the Nordics for so long, I know more about doing business here than at home.

“In addition my partners are Finns and living here. Finland has very few distilleries so it is something new and exotic for the Finns to have one producing whiskey and gin in the capital. In Ireland, we would be one more distillery in addition to those already in existence and starting up. I’m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to cope with a good deal of scepticism and red-tape before starting the distillery. But now we have it running and have been producing premium gin and our whiskey is starting its maturation.

“We are also lucky to have the distillery very close to the city centre and in the middle of the food culture capital of Finland, Teurastamo, which means ‘abattoir’ and is the old slaughterhouse area for Helsinki.”

Setting up a distillery here in Ireland is more straightforward, but so is our language — Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn. So did Séamus struggle with it?

“Coming from Sweden, I suppose it wasn’t as much of a culture shock as coming directly from Ireland. I had visited Finland many times with my wife during the years and have many friends here. Having said that, it is one thing to visit somewhere and another to live there.

It is true that you can get by quite well with English and Swedish here, but it would be great to speak some Finnish.

“However, Finnish is a fenno-ugric language, quite difficult to learn, and there are very few similarities with any of the Indo-European languages. My aim is to start a night course next year and, hopefully, pick up enough to get by doing everyday things — that will be the fourth time I have started a Finnish course and I hope I make more progress this time. Our kids attend Swedish school as Finland is officially a bilingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”

The language wasn’t the only stumbling block: “On the cultural side of things, Finland is very different to Ireland. But I really like the sauna culture. I’m no longer amazed at people being naked, hitting themselves with birch twigs, while sweating profusely in really hot saunas, before running outside to temperatures of less than -25°C, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it’s a good idea to take up winter sports here, to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”

Those long, dark winters are contributory factors in the regulation of the drinks industry in Finland — to the point that the state actually controls the sale of liquor.

“Yes, the government does really control the alcohol industry. Until 1995, it was illegal to have a distillery with the distilling only done by the state monopoly of Altia. Today, Alko is the state monopoly for the sale of stronger alcohol (above 5% vol.) to private persons. It is now possible to sell directly to restaurants and bars, however. And the prices are kept high with duty and taxes.”

So that much we have in common — in Ireland about €17 of the cost of a bottle of whiskey goes to the taxman, and while the Government here hopes to crack down on below-cost selling by the large retailers, the Finns found another way to bypass the excise and get cheap booze — the ferry to Estonia. Although Séamus is quick to point out that this practice is dying out.

“People still get on the ferry to Estonia but perhaps not as often as they used to, due to some price harmonisation taking place some years ago.”

As for the whisky they are making: “As elsewhere, there is a growing number of people who are willing to pay more for better quality products and also there is a growing interest in locally produced goods. We are making gin, whiskey and apple- jack. Where possible, we are using local ingredients so our gin, for example, has a Finnish lingonberry twist. Our applejack is made from apples from Salo, which is about an hour’s drive from Helsinki.”

As for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately two million litres of whiskey per year — 1.7 million litres is sold through Alko. Most of the whisky consumed is Scotch blends, with Canadian whiskies in second place. Irish whiskey is sold to the tune of 145.000 litres through Alko.

“Other whiskies, including Finnish, amount to less than 6,000 litres so there is some room for growth. There is a growing interest in whiskey in Finland. And, as in Ireland, the Finns are looking to try new products and the product range is excellent in many bars and restaurants.”

Seamus reveals what Finland — and the world — can expect from the Helsinki Distilling Company: “For our whiskey we are using Finnish malt from Lähti. The malt is not peated but we may experiment in the future with peated malts. Some of the best rye in the world is grown in Finland so, from the start, we were determined to make a Finnish whiskey and use Finnish raw materials without simply trying to copy an Irish whiskey or to make Scotch.

“There is no reason why excellent whiskies cannot be made here. For the rye whiskey, we include some barley in the mash, to help with the process. “Our ingredients are chosen from the best local ingredients available, with the rye being custom malted for our requirements. We are using both American and French new oak barrels that are medium-toasted. The French oak comes from the areas of Alliers and Limousin. Both American and French are offered to cask-owners and, so far, the French have proven more popular. Later on, we will be using different barrels, including old sherry and port casks, for finishing. We are working with a local cooper from outside Turku to source the barrels.

“We are using a pot-still that has an attached column. This allows us to use either the pot-still and produce that kind of whiskey or to use the column. Our final products will resemble more American Rye whiskies than Irish or Scottish.”

So that was four years ago – and now their whiskey is ready. Made from the finest Finnish rye, the Helsinki Whiskey prelude was awarded 92.5 points in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible 2017. Up Cork.

The Man Who Wanted To Know

Mattie’s was here.

It’s a curious thing to be adopted. You are a stranger in your own skin, in your own family, like a cuckoo that suddenly appears and everyone tries to pretend that you’re not different. But the difference is there every time you look at a family photo, or in the mirror – where did I get my eyes, where did I get that mouth, whose face is this? To grow up adopted is to live in a constant state of unknowing, of unanswered questions – who am I, and why am I here?

The recent revelations about St Patrick’s Guild and their litany of misregistrations should come as a surprise to no-one. The entire adoption system was inherently cruel. It wasn’t about helping parents who couldn’t afford to keep a child, or whose circumstances were such that they just were not capable of looking after it; it was about shame, abuse, and treating human beings as chattel. It’s difficult for adopted people to talk about the experience without sounding like they are bitter, or that they are angry at their parents, adoptive or biological, but in reality adoption made victims of us all – young parents were shamed into giving their children away (or they were simply taken from them), children grew up feeling abandoned or worthless, adoptive parents raised children who often grew up with emotional problems not of their making. But the church’s adoption system was a product of a colder time. In the cruel Ireland of the 1950s-1980s, if you had money, and were a good Catholic, then that was meant to be enough. Emotional wellbeing was a later invention.

My voyage of self discovery started with St Patrick’s Guild in 1996. I found the guild to be most helpful, a fact perhaps related to the then-recent reports into how the clergy was actually treating the children in their care. They knew their world was changing. The nuns reached out to the only address they had for my biological mother, and we waited. They found her, and she was keen to meet. And so it was that in the late Nineties in the basement of the guild’s premises in Dublin I met the woman who gave birth to me and found out where I came from. It came as quite a surprise to discover that I am from Dublin’s north inner city, Sheriff Street to be precise – home to Luke Kelly, Stephen Gately and Mattie’s sweet shop, eulogised by Peter Sheridan as the best sweet shop in Dublin. Mattie’s was owned by my grandparents, and is there that my mother lived until aged 19 she became pregnant, and was shipped off to a home for unfortunate girls in Meath. She gave birth to me in Holles Street in August 1975, and handed me over to the nuns three days later. For 22 years she thought of me every day. She was able to tell me all about my father, who was from Kildare, how they met, fell in love but when she became pregnant his family were not happy with the notion of them marrying. He came to visit her once when she was pregnant and that was it, she never saw him again. She showed me photos of him – I look a lot like him – and told me how to contact him. But I left it too long, and he had died at a young age by the time I got in touch. All those questions I had for him would never be answered. My biological father’s family also informed me that I might be distantly related to Jedward. So a time of mixed emotions generally.  

I’ve only been down Sherriff Street once. For my fortieth birthday, my biological mother drove me around. It is not unlike the Baltimore of The Wire. She showed me where Mattie’s was – now a Chinese takeaway – and told me stories about the people she grew up with. While we sat in the car a kid shot a pellet gun at the bonnet and I thought – is that me? Is that my other life? Because there is no part of my story that isn’t affected by privilege. My dad was a bank manager, my mum was CFO of a holiday centre, I went to a private school, they put me through college three times, they supported me no matter how I screwed up my life, and when they left this earth, they left me asset rich. This isn’t just about economics, but about stability, security and opportunity: There is no version of my story where my mother keeps me and we live happily ever after. This wasn’t The Snapper, it was 1970s Ireland, and all the love in the world would not have given me the opportunities that I have had in this life. It seems a curious thing to admit, but for me, adoption worked, despite being a flawed system that came from a flawed ideology. However, I can see all the gifts it gave us: Adoption also gave my parents the ability to raise a family, and my biological mother an opportunity to build a career, find love, marry and have a family. It left us all damaged, but even that brought its own gifts – the anger gave me wit but kept me poor, it made me creative and compassionate, and taught me that there are no easy choices in life.

I have spent the last 20 years coming to terms with who I am and where I come from, what a family is, and where to call home. Home, in the end, is where my dead lie, and not far from where I live lies the family plot, and one day it is there I will go. I love my biological family, but it is that – family with an asterisk, with an explanation, with a confusing story of who and how and why. My mum and dad were the ones who raised me, who suffered with me as my state of unknowing made me self destruct, they were the ones who contacted the guild about finding my birth parents, and they were the ones who ultimately saved me. I wasn’t a very good son, too lost and damaged to see all they did for me, and now it is too late to tell them how much they mean to me. I used to yearn for a family I didn’t know, now I yearn for the one I took for granted. But perhaps this too is just a side effect of being adopted – to live your life rotten with loss.

I can still say that the life I live is the best life possible, that all the sadness was worth it, because I am one of the lucky ones, who knew he was adopted, who found his biological family, and who, in the end, found some peace. Others are not so lucky.

The hunt is on to find someone to blame for the Irish adoption system – the church, the faithful, the politicians, the power vacuum left by the British, the republicans who used religion to forge identity and make their fight for freedom into a holy war: Perhaps we should just rebrand St Patrick’s Day into a national day of mourning.

The current trend is to blame everyone and thus no-one. But while we point fingers, time is running out for those us of who came through the old adoption system. Biological parents are getting older, chances at reconnection are being lost, and so many people on both sides of the story are scared to reach out, scared they will be rejected, scared they will be hurt. I know other adopted people who have had doors shut in their face, rejected a second time by their parents, who ended up alienated from both biological and adoptive family, people who discovered they were the result of rape, or abuse, or those who still exist in that cruel limbo of not knowing anything at all about themselves and where they came from.

There is a quote from Alex Hayley, author or Roots, on the Adoption Rights Alliance website that captures the strange experience of being adopted: “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness.”

The race to assign blame is not going to lessen the hurt of those who long to find who they are and where they came from, or those who lost children and wish to find them. Perhaps we should focus on that, rather than trying to hold the past to account.

  • This article appeared in the Irish Independent on Saturday last, 2/6/2018, albeit in slightly edited form – the reference to Mattie’s was taken out, at the request of my biological mother. While I’ve written about her in the past and said that we have an excellent relationship, the truth is that it has been deteriorating over the last decade or so. I spent the first ten years after I met her idolising her and denigrating my parents, and the latter decade learning a lot of hard lessons about what it is to be a parent, and what constitutes family.  This article is the sum of what I have learned – it is my truth, and it was my story to tell. If it brings comfort to even one adopted person, then I will consider it a story worth telling.

    If you are adopted and are wondering about whether to go looking for your biological family or not, I would say this – it will be wonderful, it will be traumatic, and it may be a Pandora’s Box that you wish you had never opened. But I know that I could not have lived without finding out where I came from, and that I am a better person for what I found. The joys have always outweighed the sorrows, and I have no regrets.  I just wish it could have been the same for all adopted people. 

The 12 drinks of Christmas

 

Wrote this for the Examiner:

 

Our little nation may not have the respect for its food culture, but when it comes to drink, few nations do it better. The last two decades have seen us spread our wings, with an explosion of craft breweries, distilleries, even wineries. With all that we have to offer, this season of feasting is as good an excuse as any to celebrate our remarkable skill at making excellent booze.

 

  1. Craft beer – The biggest obstacle to getting into craft beer is the sheer variety – it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the array of brands, styles and increasingly unusual labels. Once you figure out the difference between an IPA, sour, saison or just what a lager is, you then have to try figure out which brand is an actual craft beer and which is brewed by a massive multinational and dressed up to look like a craft beer. The easiest thing to do is to find out where your nearest craft brewery is, and buy their produce. This way you get to call yourself a localvore, which makes you cool. Why not dip your toe into the delicious world of craft beer with one of the grandaddies of them all – the Franciscan Well Brewery on Cork’s North Mall. Their Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Friar Weisse are available almost everywhere (thanks to the market penetration of parent company Molson Coors, who bought the Well four years ago). Beyond that, Whiplash make some incredibly striking brews, both aesthetically and in their flavour profile – try their Drone Logic or Body Riddle. Dungarvan Brewing Company have the Helvick Gold Irish Blonde Ale, or Blacks of Kinsale’s IPA.
  2. Porter/stout – Technically a subsection of craft beers, but since our national drink is the black stuff, it deserves a mention of its own. This is the time of year for porter (made with malted barley) and stouts (unmalted roasted barley), so there are many craft brewers releasing their own variations. One perennial that is always worth a punt is the West Kerry Brewey’s Carraig Dubh Porter, the closest you will get to dark matter on earth. A dense, heavy porter, there is eating and drinking in this absolute monster of a brew. Since this is the season of darkness, there are plenty of one-off seasonal porter and stouts from the craft breweries – 12 Acres have Winter Is Coming oatmeal porter, Boyne Brewhouse have a barrel aged imperial stout, Eight Degrees have Holly King imperial stout, and Western Herd offer Night Pod vanilla porter.
  3. Vodka – Once seen as the drink of those who didn’t know what to drink, vodka is becoming more of a stand-alone drink in recent times, as we consumer more spirits on their own to savour their flavour, rather than drowned in an unpleasant energy drink. The old line about selling ice to the eskimos springs to mind when you discover that Blackwater Distillery in west Waterford make vodka for the Finnish government – but their output isn’t all shipped over to the Nordic lands. Blackwater also have their Woulfe’s Vodka in Aldi (24.99) while they also have their own Copper Pot Distilled Vodka (34.99). Then there is the Hughes Distillery’s Ruby Blue range, a potato distilled vodka, for around 38.99, or they have a whiskey-cask finished vodka for c 55. If you’re looking for an Irish Grey Goose, Kalak is a quadruple distilled vodka from West Cork – incredibly smooth, this retails for 40 – 45.
  4. Whiskey – What can we say about Irish whiskey – the fastest growing spirits category in the world, it is selling like hotcakes. Distilleries are springing up everywhere, and there are brands popping up like mushrooms. But beyond the holy trinity of Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley there aren’t that many distilleries with mature stock. So we will start with them – Midleton has Redbreast (65), an oldschool single pot still that is Christmas in a glass, with lots of notes of stewed fruits, spices and a creamy mouthfeel. Bushmills has the old reliable, Black Bush, an oft overlooked but core expression in their range, which retails for about 34, but can usually be found for less at this time of year. Cooley have the Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira Finish (70), a classic example of just how on-point John Teeling’s former operation could be. But hark – a challenger approaches – Dingle is the first distillery to release an independent single pot still whiskey in decades. It is a rich succulent whiskey, with notes of leather, tobacco and that heavy sherry influence, but it is more than that – it is a piece of liquid history (70). A limited release, it will sell fast. West Cork Distillers have their own stock, and a wild spirit of experimentation – try their Glengarriff series peat smoked and bog oak smoked casked whiskey.
  5. Gin – A category that has exploded, partly due to the rise of whiskey distilleries looking to generate revenue while their whiskey stocks mature – Dingle Distillery’s award-winning gin is a great example. Blackwater Distillery have released a barrage of gins, often seasonal, like their Boyle’s Gin for Aldi (24.99) and accompanying damson variation. However, they also created a perfect storm for the Irish mammy by distilling a gin using Barry’s Tea – mother’s ruin and mother’s greatest comfort in one, who would have thought of such a thing? Another excellent Irish gin with elements of tea is Patrick Rigney’s Gunpowder gin, one of the most beautiful gins on the shelf and with a liquid that equals the packaging.
  6. Poitin – Finding it in the wild is a rarity – the tradition of illegal distilling is disappearing fast, so it’s up to the modern distillers to keep the category alive. Aldi have an Irish-distilled Dolmen poitin, while there is also Bán poitín (55) from Echlinville distillery up North, which also comes in the quirky variation of Bán Barrelled and Buried (59) which has been casked and buried for a short period. Perhaps save this one for the goth in your life. Glendalough do a variety of poitins, showing the sheer potential of the category – entry level (38.99), Mountain Strength (48.99), and sherry finish (39.99). The Teeling boys also do a poitin (34.99), while the Straw Boys poitin (49.95) from Connaught Distillery is also worth a shot.
  7. Wine – Nobody thinks of Ireland when they hear the word wine, yet there are, in fact, Irish-made wines. Wicklow Way Wines is Ireland’s first fruit winery, home to Móinéir Fine Irish Fruit Wine, specifically a strawberry wine (20) – granted, not the best suited to a dank Christmas, but a welcome taste of summer in a bleak midwinter; or why not try their blackberry wine (20)? David Llewellyn creates Lusca wines in Lusk – his Cabernet Merlot (43.99) is more than just a curiosity.  
  8. Cider –  the quintessential all-season drink – with ice in summer, or mulled in winter, as advised by the good people at Longueville House, whose dry cider (4) is a beauty. Multi-award winning Stonewell from Nohoval offer some beautiful ciders, but their tawny is perfect for that festive cheese plate – a a rich, opulent and viscous cider, dark in colour and possessing complex bittersweet flavours. Also offering a solid core range is Johnny Fall Down – they’ve created an award winning Bittersweet Cider, a uniquely Irish Rare Apple Port (Pommeau), and the first Ice Cider created mainly from bittersweet varietals.
  9. Mead – With all the fuss about Game Of Thrones, who doesn’t want to live like a feudal lord and quaff mead? Naturally, being an aristocratic drink, the barony of Kinsale is home to Ireland’s latest entrant into the category. One of the oldest drinks in the world, their variations on this honey-based drink come in dry, with a refreshing citrus orange honey flavour, or their Wild Red, a melomel or fruit mead type, made from a Spanish dark forest honey, tart blackcurrants and sweet cherries to produce a zesty fruity aroma and long finish.
  10. Brandy – Not the most crowded category, it would appear that there is only one Irish brandy – Longueville House’s beautiful apple brandy. Made in the stately home, it is distilled from their cider and aged for at least four years in French oak barrels. A perfect end to your Christmas feast.
  11. Irish cream – The Irish cream category got a bad name, thanks to aunties everywhere drinking too much of it and embarrassing you. However, it is a hedonistic festive treat. The festive classic – Baileys over ice, ice-cream or in a coffee – is an oft-overlooked delight. There are of course, other Irish cream drinks – the wonderful Coole Swan, Cremor, Carolans, and Kerrygold. If there;s any left over, there’s always a Toblerone and Baileys cheesecake just crying out to be made.
  12. Hard coffee – Technically not really a category at all – until this year. Conor Coughlan’s Black Twist is single origin coffee brewed with whiskey. Don’t think Kahlua or Tia Maria – this has none of their cloying sweetness. Black Twist leans far more into coffee territory than whiskey, and is excellent over ice as a digestif, or as the secret weapon in a cocktail. Of course, this is the season to be jolly responsibly – so Black Castle Drinks offer something a little bit special so the designated driver won’t feel like a plum sipping their Red TK and raspberry cordial in the corner. Their craft sodas include Fiery Ginger Beer and Berry Bramble Sting, and are a treat for all ages.

 

Most of the above are available in SuperValu, your local artisan offie, or online. Almost all of the drinks are made by small, independent firms who are simply trying something new – supporting them, and our food and drink industry, really is the perfect Christmas gift.

It’s beginning to look a lot like advertorial

I wrote a few bits for the Examiner to go in a seasonal supplement on Midleton, naturally I started with the distillery, then a well-curated email interview with Ignacio, above, GM of the heritage centre, and a couple of other bits, including one on Iceland. You pay me and I will write about anything guys, anything.

 

There used to be two distilleries in Midleton. Everyone knows about the Jameson one on the east side of town; but at the other end of the main street, alongside the Owenacurra River, close to the Mill Road site of Erin Foods, there was once another sizeable whiskey making operation. The Hackett brothers opened on this site in the early 1800s and at their height they produced 200,000 gallons of whiskey and employed 60 people. They had an eye on the future, with an interest in distilling from sugar beet. A series of unfortunate business moves and economic factors outside their control saw them lose it all, and no trace of the distillery remains. The story of the Hacketts serves as a fitting counterpoint to the fortunes of the Murphy brothers who started Midleton Distillery. They ran a tight ship, one that made it through two centuries of choppy waters, and made Midleton the stronghold of Irish whiskey, given that at one stage the only other distillery was Bushmills in Northern Ireland.

The success of Midleton distillery is down the Murphy brothers’ choices – at the same time the Hacketts were experimenting with sugar beet, the Murphy brothers were keeping a steady eye on the horizon. They chose wisely from day one – even in their choice of location: They had the infrastructure in the form of an old mill and river alongside, giving them enough power their enormous mill wheel, and provide them with enough water to create 400,000 gallons of whiskey annually. When the Hacketts employed 60 staff, the Murphys had three times that number.

There is no trace of Hackett distillery in Midleton anymore. However, the Murphy distillery has kept the spirit alive for two hundred years, surviving the lean times from the early 1900s through periods of contraction in the industry and even a spell when the distillery was only operational a couple of days a week, such was the low level of demand for Irish whiskey. Of course, the last ten years has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world, thanks largely to Midleton and its owners, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.

Huge investment has seen the modern distillery become one of the most modern and efficient in the world, while the heritage side of it has gone from strength to strength, expanding their tourism offerings with the Irish Whiskey Academy, which offers bespoke two-day courses for the true whiskey nerd, and the micro-distillery, which not only brought distilling back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades, but has also become a space for experimentation with different grains.

Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO said: “Here at home we’re proud to see our Irish whiskey sales growing. We also welcomed the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association’s Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy in late 2016 which aims to increase Irish Whiskey Tourism from 653,277 visitors per annum up to 1.9 million visitors by 2025. We were delighted with the results of our €11 million redevelopment of the Jameson Distillery Bow St., which has welcomed more than 180,000 visitors despite being closed for six months. When combined with the Jameson Experience Midleton, we welcomed over 310,000 visitors to our brand homes to experience the best of Irish whiskey this year.”

IDL experienced another successful financial year in 2016/2017 with the acceleration of the global development of Jameson and its premium Single Pot Still Irish whiskey range, which includes the Spot whiskeys, as well as Redbreast. Innovation in its portfolio has been key to the sustained growth: Recent product launches include Jameson Caskmates, which experienced 110% volume growth in 2016/17.

A sign of the growing confidence in the category is the launch of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club, which invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required. The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Clearly, this is one offer aimed at the high rollers – the first member of the cask circle was Hollywood heavyweight Dana Brunetti, with a large number of recent members coming from Asia.

To top off a stellar year Midleton’s Redbreast 21-year-old and Midleton Dair Ghaelach were both in the top three of whisky legend Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018 is the 15th edition of the publication and contains taste notes for over 4,600 drams. With over 1,200 new whiskies tasted for the latest edition of the international guide, the supreme Col. Taylor faced stiff competition from European rivals to claim the top award. In third place behind Redbreast 21 and Col. Taylor was Glen Grant Aged 18 Years Rare Edition, which drops from its second-place finish in 2016. Commenting on the accolade, Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Irish Distillers said: “This nod from Jim Murray is truly heartwarming for me and everyone at Midleton Distillery who has helped to make Redbreast such an enjoyed whiskey. We are humbled by this and it’s really encouraging to see traditional Irish pot still whiskey take one of the top spots in the world of whiskeys and whiskies. When we were preparing for the launch of Redbreast 21 in 2013 and we were doing our tastings, we knew we had something special on our hands so it is great to see this appreciation shared by people across the world. This award is a testament to the team at Midleton and especially to my predecessors who had the foresight to squirrel away those casks that helped us to bring Redbreast 21 to the world.”

Midleton has outlived many other competitors – from the Hacketts at the other end of town, to distilleries all over Ireland that failed over the last two centuries. As we head into a second golden age of Irish whiskey, it will be Midleton that will guide the category to greater and greater success.

 

As ‎general manager of ‎The Jameson Experience Midleton, Ignacio Peregrina is in charge of one of southern Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions – perhaps a fitting career for someone who came from one of Europe’s top holiday destinations.

“I’m from Gran Canaria, an island famed for its welcome and tourism, and I wanted to move somewhere with a similar passion for hospitality. I arrived in Ireland just over 15 years ago; I came for the craic but ended up staying and building a life here. Once I met my future wife Claire I knew Ireland was the place for me. I met her within an hour of landing, my buddy picked me up from the airport and we went to a Salsa class where I met the wonderful Claire. We were married three years ago in Midleton and we are blessed to call Midleton our home.

“My path to Midleton started in Dublin. During my time there, I worked for four years in the Jameson Distillery Bow St. and I also undertook a degree in Hospitality and Tourism in DIT. I’ve always had a passion for food and drink so Dublin was a great place to explore this passion. During my time in Bow St., I built up experience across all areas of the business and that helped me to secure my dream job here in Midleton as General Manager of the Jameson Experience.”

Of course, he isn’t the only person to come from overseas to Midleton: “It is a great pleasure to welcome people from many different nations. A considerable percentage of our visitors arrive via tour operators and it’s always a good day for me to pull up at work and see buses filled with people excited to experience Midleton Distillery.

“The top five visiting nationalities, in no particular order, are French, German, British, American and Irish, with the Jameson Experience tour being our largest selling tour. However, in recent years we have opened the Micro Distillery and Irish Whiskey Academy and the craft tours we have created for these areas are proving very popular, especially with whiskey enthusiasts. Midleton Distillery offers a truly sensorial experience where you can see, hear, feel and smell a live distillery in action.”

The Jameson Experience in Dublin recently closed for a renovation, and while their new tour is all singing, all dancing, Midleton offers an insight into the processes of whiskey making: “The main difference between the two sites is that our Bow St. team focus primarily on Jameson Whiskey whilst my team here in Midleton explore all our whiskey brands – Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, the Spot Range, Midleton Very Rare and the newly launched, Method & Madness.

“My opposite number at the Jameson Distillery Bow St.  operates several great tours of varying duration and intensity so, whether you’re new to the world of whiskey, a connoisseur or a budding cocktail maker, they have an experience for you.

“Here at Midleton Distillery we also provide a range of tour experiences such as the Jameson Experience, the Behind the Scenes tour, and the Academy Experience. All are great fun and offer visitors wonderful insights into some of Ireland’s historic whiskey brands.”

The Irish Whiskey Association is pushing whiskey tourism here, and recently held the launch of their southern whiskey tourism plan in Midleton: “Ireland has great potential to become a world class destination for whiskey tourism. As the Irish whiskey industry grows, we’ve welcomed many visitors from new and established distillery attractions who are keen to learn what we do and how we do it. Irish Distillers have been operating whiskey visitor centres for over 30 years so we have plenty of experience to share. We don’t see other distilleries as competition, which of course they are, but, as one of the guardians of the Irish Whiskey industry we’re delighted to help in any way we can.

“At Midleton Distillery we’re ready to welcome anyone who would like to improve the whiskey tourism product. We have tough competition from our friends in Scotland but if the whiskey players in Ireland work together we can offer an amazing experience.”

Peregrina also works closely with the local Chamber in Midleton: “An effective Chamber of Commerce can make a significant difference to a town and we’re blessed to have such a great team here in Midleton.

“Midleton town has been home to whiskey distilling since 1825 and is our priority to work with and support the local community as much as possible. We do everything we can to make sure more people come to Midleton and leave with lovely memories that will last a lifetime.”

 

Bluebells

The bluebell flower blooms in spring of each year. Usually located on the forest floor, they burst into life as the first rays of a brighter sun touch on them, after its long absence during the winter months. Their bulbous, indigo flowers are a sign that brighter days are coming.

Opening a business in the teeth of the worst recession in Irish history would have been a brave move for any business person. But to open a gift shop in a small town in east Cork seems like absolute madness. However, seven years on and Hazell Abbott’s compact and bijou Bluebells on Midleton’s Main Street is still going strong. Of course, the success of the store isn’t just it’s selection of interesting gift ideas, but in Abbott’s background as an accountant. However, even she admits that it was a crazy idea: “I opened up at the worst time,” she laughs, “everyone thought I was totally mad.”

From Offaly originally, her husband hails from Barryroe in west Cork, so when it came to them leaving Dublin, the chose to head south. She had planned to open a gift shop for several years, but location would be key.  She and her husband – who is also an accountant – went on a reconnaissance mission to towns around Cork to find the perfect blend of a good space at a good price – and a good buzz about the place. They settled on Midleton, citing the atmosphere, the large hinterland and the fact that while other towns struggled over the last 20 years, Midleton has thrived. It is a wealthy town. After a successful few years, she expanded the shop to the rear, and took on two staff so she could spend more time with her husband and their two year old son.

While her business shifts into top gear from here to January, it is more than just a seasonal outlet – as she notes, there are always gifts needed for wedding, anniversaries, new babies and birthdays. But at this time of year her shop is busier than ever, with its selection of bric a brac and miscellania – a selection that Hazel spends some time choosing, ensuring that her offerings are not widely available in the town, dropping lines that are carried elsewhere. But at this time of year her shop is a godsend for anyone looking for that just-so item, the little thing that you haven’t seen anywhere else, that most elusive thing – the ideal Christmas gift.

Iceland

Hermann Jónasson was a famously hot-blooded Icelandic politician who famously once slapped a member of an opposition party. Despite this, he is remembered as one of his country’s great politicians, which is perhaps why Malcolm Walker, a British businessman, decided to pay tribute to Jónasson – a family friend of the Walkers – when he opened his new supermarket chain. That was back in 1970, and now almost half a century later, the chain is going from strength to strength. Almost from day one the focus was on freezer food – and it upon this rock that they built their church.

Iceland initially came to Ireland in 1996, but withdrew in 2005, only to return in 2008. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, with their 18th store in the Republic opening in Shannon next month. This flurry of store openings was the result of a €12 million investment in nine new stores in Ireland this year alone. Some 270 new jobs were created across the country as part of the investment in the new stores in Tallaght, Galway, Cork (Douglas, Fermoy, Ballincollig) Letterkenny, Limerick, Shannon, and Gorey.

Ron Metcalfe, Managing Director of Iceland Ireland said “We have been back in Ireland for four years now and have been committed to expansion from day one. This new investment sees 2017 as our biggest year yet with our nine new stores opening. We’re looking forward to bringing great value and a brand customers can trust to Tallaght, Galway, and across the country this year, as well as welcoming new team members to the Iceland family. And as always, we’re looking forward to expanding and delivering the Power of Frozen to more Irish customers than ever before”.

The Midleton store opened in 2014, and brought a much-needed boost to Distillery Lanes, a Celtic Tiger era development at the east end of the town. Since then the store has thrived, offering a unique food offering to shoppers who flock there from across Munster. Iceland is home to over 2,000 branded fresh and frozen grocery products, and supports Irish with more than 32 local suppliers – in addition to being the exclusive stockist of the Slimming World range in Ireland. Iceland Midleton even offers a home delivery service, while Iceland was also the first UK supermarket to remove artificial flavourings, colouring, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and non-essential preservatives from its own branded products in 1986. In 1990 Iceland took the lead in banning mechanically recovering meat (MRM) from own brand products; and in 1998 Iceland became the world’s first national food retailer to ban genetically modified (GM) ingredients from own brand products.

Iceland has thrown off the old stigma of convenience foods, and is now a one-stop shop for the party season and beyond. With a recovering economy and the festive season ahead, it looks like Iceland are heading into their biggest Christmas yet, while the brand has come full circle in recent years by opening an outlet in Iceland itself. Hermann Jónasson would be proud.

No Pain, No Gain

 

Wrote this for the Examiner:

 

When it comes to achieving your sporting dreams, there are no shortcuts. Except obviously there are – steroids. Aside from big name busts like Lance Armstrong, there are more and more whispers of big names across the sporting world using pharmaceutical enhancements to gain an edge on a competitor. But of all the sports tarnished by steroid abuse, bodybuilding is one that seems synonymous with the practise. However, there are those within the scene who utterly reject any medical shortcuts – to an almost forensic degree.

The World Natural Bodybuilding Federation was founded in the USA back in 1990 with the aim of offering those who wanted to take part in bodybuilding in the most healthy way possible a platform for their achievements. From humble beginnings it has become a worldwide phenomenon. The Irish wing of the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation held their annual competition in the Everyman Theatre last Saturday. There among the gold gilt Victorian splendour, competitors, clad in the tiniest scraps of in velvet and sequined cloth, flexed and posed as they showed the judging panel just how perfectly defined their bodies were, while backstage there were drug tests and polygraph tests to make sure that nobody had been tempted to use steroids or growth hormones.

One of the organisers, Mark Lee, a champion natural bodybuilder, explained the motivation for this purist approach: “Bodybuilding has a stigma associated with it which is what we are trying to break.

“But you will have some people regardless who will turn up and try. We would love to test everybody who takes part, but it costs a lot of money, the testing alone costs up to 2,000 euro per show, so we need to get a lot of bums on seats here.

“You won’t see our shows as heavily attended as the other shows in terms of competitors – we have about 70, normal competitions would have about 140, because we have such guidelines and rules, people just won’t come. But we don’t want them obviously if they are using steroids.”

The Natural Bodybuilding Federation of Ireland has seen competitors start out with them and then move on to pharmaceutical enhancements – but the NBFI does not tolerate anyone who has used steroids previously in their life: “You have guys who would have gone natural who then would have moved on to other things. There are other associations out there that have a seven year rule – whereby they allow you to compete naturally in their association if you have been off any banned substances for seven years, but ours is a lifetime rule. So if you ever in your life had any steroids, you can’t take part in our events.

“For us it’s a lifestyle – our people want to eat healthy and train healthy.”

 

They train healthy – and they train even harder because of it. There are no shortcuts here. Take Aleksander Grynia, a 23 year old who travelled down from Wicklow for the contest. His muscle mass isn’t just for show – he works making industrial equipment and needs to be as a strong as possible. He works a nine to five job, then trains from six to nine every evening and more at the weekends. In the week leading up to the event he doubled down on his efforts, cut down on his food intake, and took bronze in the under-24 category.

From the outside, bodybuilding seems like an odd pursuit. There is a sense amongst some that improving the physique to this degree means the intellect will atrophy. But then you talk to a bodybuilder and realise that their understanding of the human body is far greater than the average person. They are like mechanics, fine tuning and boosting muscle and sinew until they achieve perfection – this is the body as machine. Unlike team sports, it is often a solitary affair, as they strive to be the best they can be: Rise before dawn, protein shake and gym. Everything is controlled, from the diet to the routines to the reps. The self discipline is extraordinary, but once people get the taste for it, it becomes a vocation.

The show itself is split into categories – based on age, height, weight and gender. Competitors are asked to do a series of poses to show certain muscles or muscle groups, and this is where genetics come into play. While some people build muscle more easily than others, some people are simply blessed with, for example, sizeable lats, so when competing they can fan them out like the Archangel Gabriel spreading his wings.

Then there are posedowns, where competitors have to freestyle a variety of poses, showing their best assets to the crowds – you find yourself holding your breath as they flex and strain to get each muscle to pop. The brown colouring they use on their skin enhances this effect – the darker colour shows the contours. But this is about something deeper than skin – it is the human form stripped bare, all muscle and sinew as visible as it would be in a medical textbook.

One person who has made a career out of capturing muscle and sinew is Shaun Barry. From Carlow, the young photographer travels the country covering bodybuilding events, and his moody monochrome portraits have become highly desirable, as they transform their subjects into classical godlike figures. Having got into photography five years ago, in the last three to four years he started to focus on fitness photography and found his niche, although as he points out there are a few more people getting into it now – to this end he pays to secure image rights on events. There is a whole micro-economy around fitness – gyms, shops selling supplements, home training equipment, clothing. As our working and home lives become more sedentary, simple things like going to the gym are becoming part of our lives, and a dedication to feeling and looking your best is less of a prideful sin and more a medical necessity.  

The Everyman was packed with families of competitors – from grandparents to infant children. Conor McCarthy travelled with his parents and girlfriend from Mullingar and was beaming with pride in the lobby. Only two years after starting bodybuilding, he took first place in the Men’s Physique (Tall) category.  While he has youth (and height) on his side, many of the competitor are in their 40s and 50s. All want to be the best, but in the small scene of the national circuit, they all know each other well. They all want to win, but they all have the same aim – to win clean. In a world that seems to be facing an epidemic of shady practises across all sports, the NRBI have shown that the most powerful muscle of all is the mind.

Another goddam hot take on the Rose of Tralee

Did this for the Examiner:

 

Is there anyone who doesn’t love the Rose of Tralee? The answer, obviously, is a resounding yes – there are many, many people who do not like the Rose of Tralee. There are many reasons why this is so – it is seen as an anachronism, a throwback to the 1950s era that spawned it, when Church and State worked hand in hand to create an atmosphere akin to The Handmaid’s Tale. Fr Ted may have thoroughly skewered the festival via the Lovely Girls contest, but perhaps we have come out the other side of it and can now appreciate the Rose festival for what it is – slightly awkward, relatively harmless fun.

The Rose of Tralee is a many splendored thing – here are just some of its wonders

It’s not a beauty pageant: From the outset it has never been a beauty pageant, because that might suggest humans feel desire, and that wouldn’t have gone over well back in the 1950s when we reproduced via pollination. The Rose of Tralee is meant to be more about the kind of beauty that doesn’t actually matter in the real world – inner beauty. The qualities they seek are those reflected in the song of the same name – that she be lovely and fair, like the first rose of summer. Or beautiful, as it is also known.

Escorts: Like a fringe festival of Lovely Boys, the escorts play a pivotal role by looking like they are going to a dress dance in Templemore training college, whilst making sure their Rose is assisted when alighting from buses or getting back onto buses, or that overseas Roses are taught about important aspects of Irish culture like why we hate the British, what a spicebag is, or how to sledge someone effectively at a puck-out.

The Build-Up: Even though the event is best known as a brief TV spectacle, the Roses actually have to endure a long tour of duty around the country for some awkward photo shoots. Nowhere is safe –  shopping centres, wildlife parks, self service filling station forecourts, public amenity sites, no space is too insignificant or bleak for the Roses to be herded off a bus, only to get assaulted by a llama while someone else takes 300 photos.

The host: From Gaybo, to Raybo, to Tubbs, to Dáithí, the key element to being the host is to be as awkward as humanly possible. This helps the Rose feel more normal, despite being trapped in an actual episode of Fr Ted. The secret is to be asexually bland, and not steal the limelight from the poor Rose – Ray D’Arcy caused consternation the year that he did a cartwheel across the stage as it was deemed much better than most of the Roses’ performances and almost saw him win the title.

The party piece: Some Roses are clearly destined for greatness – look at a pre-stardom Gabby Logan’s professional performance back in 1991. Then there are the Roses who look like they just found out they were expected to do a little party piece, and rattle out a bawdy Limerick or show how they can turn their eyelids inside out. Of course few can compare with the 2011 Dublin Rose, Siobheal Nic Eochaidh, whose wildly thrashing hip-hop dance routine looked like one of the scenes cut from The Exorcist.

The controversies: Somehow you would expect that this gentlest of events would avoid becoming a scene of controversies, but sadly it seems even the Rose Dome has become a sort of analog Twitter in recent years. There was the fathers rights activist who dressed as a priest and stormed the stage with an illegible sign that made everyone think it said Farmers For Justice (which no doubt got a few cheers from the Macra escorts), to last year’s Down Rose, who said the Roses were treated like animals in a circus, which was very upsetting as she had clearly never been to a circus. Those places are awful.

The Rose festival even had its very own Inception moment, when in 2013 a shot on Monday night’s show included cutlery with the crest of the eventual winner printed on them, suggesting that – shock, horror – the winner might be decided before Dáithí opens the envelope on the Tuesday night. Although it seems fitting, given that the winner is meant to have the rose-like qualities espoused in the song, and thus would need to be a plant.

The Rose Of Tralee may have its detractors – and many awkward photo ops on actual tractors – but it is still a very Irish affair. Until the organisers try to modernise it and turn it into some sort of reality TV Battle Royale, perhaps we should just appreciate it for what it is – slightly quaint, gentle fun, that is definitely not a beauty pageant.

 

The trouble with tribbles

I wrote a second column for the Examiner for the same reason I wrote the first. Here it is:

 

The London School of Economics this week published a cheerful report under the title Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes: An Update. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the update might only comprise one word – ‘yes’ – but it goes into a little more detail than that. Reviewing 61 studies from OECD countries including Australia and the UK, the study found direct correlation between money – or lack thereof – and a child’s outcome in life, including their cognitive development.

The report comes as great news for anyone of reasonable income who opted to have a sensible number of children – a figure between zero and two – but for those of us who opted to cross the Rubicon into legally needing a people carrier, the report was a further confirmation that we have too many kids.

In much the same way a human year is seven dog years, having a litter of four kids today is like having 12 or 16 back in the 1950s heyday of Catholic Ireland. While back then it was seen as some sort of blessing from God to have more kids than you need or want, having a large family in the modern age means you lack a fundamental grasp of either biology or economics.

When I tell people I have four kids I usually have to add ‘…with the same person’ as I worry it might make me seem like some feckless Johnny Appleseed wandering the hills of Munster, casting my wild oats about in every direction. When a friend of mine heard my wife was pregnant for the fourth time he declared ‘dear God man, she isn’t a clown car you know’. But here we are, with four kids aged from 14 to two and a half, arranging to sit down together for a meal once a fortnight, an event that usually gets cancelled as one or the other of us dozes off halfway through.

Discussion of our kids with other couples is along the lines of a movie character back from a tour of duty in Vietnam, complete with thousand yard stare, whispering to themselves about the filth and horror they have witnessed. Not that we get to meet up with friends much, as going anywhere with four kids is like Hannibal mobilising his armies to cross the Alps. And of course there is no babysitter equipped to handle four kids, as not even the fastest Formula One car can shift through the gears at the rate you need to cope with a toddler, a teen and two vaguely manageable ones in between whose names you sometimes forget.

Even a trip to the supermarket – which is now classified as a ‘day out’ for the kids – goes off like the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, chaos, screaming, someone missing a teddy. Charging up the cereal aisle in Tesco like you are storming a gun turret because you have to get six weeks worth of food in 15 minutes before one or all of the kids go off like a heavy artillery shell. Then when one of them finally does snap and realises they can do what they want and you can’t shout at them, you have to endure those looks from people who have forgotten what it was like to have kids; people who have used the Mandela Effect to convince themselves that their kids were better behaved than yours.  

Before I had four kids kids I used to think the parents in Home Alone should have social services called on them. Now I watch it and think ‘this is funny because it will quite possibly happen to me some day’. Not that we will be vacationing anywhere anytime soon – I couldn’t inflict us on air passengers, they are tense enough these days without six screaming humans creating an atmospheric tension that makes United 93 look like The Love Boat.

Of course, holidays aren’t even an option with four kids, because unless you are some sort of Celtic Tiger developer or Aztec god, you won’t have the money. My only hope is that when my kids grow up they can say ‘well, we didn’t have much, but we had each other’. It will be a comfort to me when they stick me in the cheapest nursing home they can find.

However bleak the picture painted by the LSE report, there is hope: A conference in the UK late last year found that most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness, so while my kids won’t get iPads, hugs are free – and I can hug the goddam hell out of them. And the organisation behind the conference that made this reassuring announcement? The London School Of Economics.

Will work for undercooked food

So I did a column for the Examiner, as their regular guy, Colm Tobin (please note, not the award-winning author Colm Toibin) was on paternity leave. So I wrote about office social events, a topic not selected by me but by my editor, and largely based on my experience of office bashes back in 2004-2007. So basically nowt to do with where I work now, who I work with, or anything else. Here endeth the disclaimer:

 

Office summer party season is here again, an event that blends two fun concepts –  summer and parties – with a sphere that is utterly devoid of both fun and sunlight – the modern office.

The counterpoint to the office Christmas party, which at least takes places in the dark evenings so no-one feels weird about being hammered at 8pm, the summer office party is really all about the build-up. The list is on the wall, who has signed the list, who has not signed the list, has anyone given even one cent of the five euro for the pig on a spit, or is everyone skipping that for a chicken snackbox al fresco at 3am? There is just so much giddy expectation, because deep down everyone is hoping that this goes off like the Red Wedding in Game Of Thrones, only with a charity raffle in the middle of the bloodshed.

Of course, the secret desire of the office drone to revert to some primal form after a few free drinks is the worst nightmare of HR execs everywhere. Office human resources departments run a tight ship, ensuring that almost no trace of humanity remains in the workplace – vows of silence, chastity and poverty are all in the fine print in your contract – so the summer party is a chance to take your business off site where HR can no longer see you, in much the same way French aristocrats, when devouring rare songbirds, used to place a silk sheet over their head to hide their delicious crime from the eyes of god.

Of course, for the socially awkward among us – and that is about 90% of the population of Ireland – the idea of going out with the ‘work crew’ is in itself hell. Who came up with the idea – spending time with the people you spend most of your time with anyway, only you’re not getting paid to be around them and you are drinking warm beer and getting food poisoning from an undercooked pig cheek. Not even the automatons of the accounting department could come up with such dry cruelty.

Then there is the office Iago, sowing seeds of discord and dissent ahead of the big night; are you going, well such-and-such wants to know just in case there’s any awkwardness. Then off to such-and-such to report the exact opposite of what was said, lighting the fuse on the powder keg of simmering resentment that comes from being stuck in the same grey space with the same grey people for more than a decade.

But in the run-up to the party – a period that spans the two weeks before the date but feels like it actually encompasses your entire life – you were asked so many times by so many people if you were going that eventually you just said yes, yes of course you will be there, all the while thanking god you have kids so you can cancel plans at the last minute and nobody judges you for it. In fact, you look even better as they think you am staying home to mind a sick child, as opposed to sitting alone playing Overwatch for ten hours straight. There comes a stage in life where cancelling plans is the sweetest drug of them all, and cancelling going to the work summer party brings a rush of endorphins that you haven’t felt since Sir Henry’s shut down.

When it comes to the office summer party, it’s probably best to adopt the same policy you did for the company’s manual lifting course, hand hygiene course and alcohol addiction awareness course, and just not bother going.

Forty shades of delicious

I wrote a couple of pieces for the Irish Examiner Food & Drink supplement; one about innovation in food and drink, and one on (of all things) whiskey.

And would you believe I didn’t get any free booze for doing this? Shocking. WTF is journalism coming to? Anyway, here you go:

 

Brewing up a storm

Our forty shades of green are more than just a tourism slogan – they are also a sign of just how strong agriculture is in this country. Whiskey sales may be rocketing, but our craft beer scene is also getting stronger, with a plethora of new brands coming on stream every month – to the point that many of the brewing giants are trying to cash in and creating ‘craft’ styled brands. When the titans of industry are getting rattled, you know a revolution is taking place.

It has been 21 years since the late Oliver Hughes and his cousin Liam LaHart opened the Porterhouse in Temple Bar, and while the concept seemed alien at the time in a country where you drank one of three lagers or one of three stouts, the modern boom shows just what a thirst there was for change. A Bord Bia report released last year highlighted this, pointing out that there is an estimated 90 microbreweries operating in the Republic of Ireland, of which 62 are production microbreweries and at least 28 are contracting companies. There was a 29% increase in the number of production microbreweries from 48 in 2015 to 62 in 2016. The number of microbreweries has more than quadrupled since 2012.

As the scene grows, so does innovation in the category. Munster Brewery in Youghal is one example. Last year the brewers, twins Padraig and Adrian Hyde, released 12 Towers,  Ireland’s first certified organic beer. They also signed up to a green earth initiative: “We’ve delighted to say we’ve just signed up to the Climate Neutral Now programme, where we promise to reduce emissions and offset any unavoidable ones by buying carbon credits. It’s an extra expense we don’t really need but one we’re happy to pay. We’ve gone and committed the entire brewery to the Climate Neutral Now programme so we’re busy as bees monitoring energy usage and fuel.”

Apart from making their beers more earth and body friendly, they also make the ancient health drink kombucha under their HOLO (holistic and organic) brand. While they also offer tours, they are frustrated by the licensing laws, which prohibit small brewers and distillers from selling direct to customers. They can sell huge amount wholesale, but not a few bottles to a tourist – an issue for any potential drinks tourism.

Innovation is integral to the drinks category – and with the explosion in craft breweries and distilleries comes new ideas. Perhaps one of the biggest success stories in drinks innovation here is Baileys, the first of the now ubiquitous Irish creams. A collision of two forms of famring – tillage (barley for whiskey) and dairy (the cream), it was dreamed up by David Dand in Dublin in 1974. Legend has it that it was first created using a simple mixer (blending cream and whiskey takes a bit more science than that),  it now sells 6.4m cases year, or 80m bottles – more than the entire Irish whiskey industry combined. Every three secs someone, somewhere in the world is having a Baileys. The brand has also expanded to include Baileys Gold, Baileys Chocolat Luxe, and flavours Biscotti, Vanilla-Cinnamon, Pumpkin Spice, Espresso and Salted Caramel. Each year, 38,000 Irish dairy cows produce more than 220 million litres of fresh cream specifically for the creation of Baileys.

The success has prompted other entrants to the category, with Cremór, Kerrygold, Carolans, Molly’s, Brogans, Saint Brendan’s and Coole Swan all doing a booming trade.

Kerrygold Irish cream is produced by the Ornua group, which recently released booming stats. As Ireland’s largest exporter of primary Irish dairy products, they delivered a strong trading performance in 2016, with turnover up by 9% to €1.75 billion – a figure all the more remarkable when you consider that this performance was achieved in a year of volatile milk prices and political uncertainty in some of their key markets.  The global giant’s ambition is to move Kerrygold from being a world-class butter brand to an instantly recognisable €1 billion global dairy brand in the coming years. 2016 saw the successful launch of Kerrygold Yogurts in Germany, Kerrygold Spreadable in the UK and the continued roll-out of Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur across Europe and the US.

Ireland’s strength in the export of food and drink products is also reflected in the success of the Carbery Group, a global leader in food ingredients, flavours and cheese, headquartered in Ballineen, Cork. Founded in 1965 as a joint venture between four creameries and Express Dairies, UK, Carbery Group is owned by four Irish dairy co-operatives, employ more than 600 people, and manufacture from eight facilities worldwide, including Ireland, UK, USA, Brazil and Thailand. The group has moved far beyond the traditional bedrock of cheese to health and nutritional supplements and flavour creation.

One knock-on from the distilling is the boom in gins, used as a revenue generator by distilleries as their whiskey stocks mature, while the use of local botanical infusions in the gins give them a regional flavour that sets each apart. One of Carbery Group’s success stories in drinks innovation blends the normally disparate worlds of dairy farming and distilling. Originating from Ballyvolane House in Cork, Bertha’s Revenge gin is named after a cow, a tribute befitting an alcoholic beverage distilled from sweet whey, the liquid produced during cheese making. Bertha’s Revenge is distilled with whey alcohol sourced from Carbery and derived from cow’s milk produced by Cork dairy farmers.

Using specially developed yeasts to ferment the milk sugars in the whey, Carbery brew and then double distill the whey in large column stills. Justin Green of Ballyvolane House and his business partner Antony Jackson then distill the 96% proof whey alcohol a third time in their custom-made 125 litre copper stills along with botanicals such as coriander, bitter orange, cardamom, cumin and clove as well as foraged local botanicals such as elderflower and sweet woodruff. The resulting gin has won local and international acclaim since its launch in 2015, and Bertha’s Revenge is now exported to the UK, mainland Europe and even South Korea – and, later this year, to the US, where it just won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2017.

Bertha’s Gin has shown that innovation, experimentation and even the occasional odd idea can get the best out of Ireland’s tradition of agricultural excellence – and proof that those forty shades of green can always keep us in the black.

Distillers of future past

The old adage of ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ may not be true in all fields, but in whiskey it might just be. With a history of distilling dating back to its first mention in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 (the Scots’ earliest mention is 1494), we were the world’s greatest whiskey makers by the late 1800s, with distilleries dotted all over the country. But that changed – a combination of war, pestilence, famine and a simple changing of tastes saw us go into a period of decline that hit a low point in the Seventies and Eighties, with only two distilleries left on the island of Ireland – Bushmills and Midleton. We were an also ran in the world whiskey scene, with our neighbours the Scots having left us for dust.

Fast forward to the last six years: Through careful marketing – and our old friend ‘changing tastes’ – Jameson has rocketed to the fasted growing spirit brand in the world, and that rising tide of smooth irish liquor has lifted a number of boats, with distilleries popping up all over the country. This is great news for the whiskey fan, but the wider effects will be felt in agriculture and tourism. In the short term, more distilleries means a need for more barley, more maltsters, and thus more employment. In the longer term, it will mean more tourists.

Whisky tourism is worth tens of millions to the Scottish economy – travel across a region like Speyside, where there are 50+ distilleries, and you can see how a coherent strategy has been built around whisky – there is even a walking trail you can take, bringing you through the hills from distillery to distillery. But they have had decades to draw a roadmap for tourism, while here our industry is still in its infancy, with a number of distilleries in operation, in the process of being built, at the planning stage, and some that are still trying to get beyond being a pipe dream.

Dublin has a number of distilleries at various stages – the merchant princes of Irish whiskey, Jack and Stephen Teeling, sons of the legendary John Teeling, who opened Cooley distillery and democratised whiskey by selling it direct to bottlers, have an incredibly slick operation in Newmarket Square. Alltech agrifoods billionaire Pearse Lyons has his eponymous distillery housed inside an old church in the Liberties, while a couple of hundred years down the road the former owners of Bushmills, Diageo are building a distillery within one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland – the Guinness site at St James’s Gate. Also nearby is the Dublin Liberties Distillery, which has recently commenced construction. Meanwhile, the longest serving whiskey tourism hub in Dublin, the Bow Street Jameson Heritage Centre, recently re-opened after a massive €11m overhaul.

But Dublin doesn’t need a selection of distilleries to attract tourists – it is simply another string to the city’s bow. It is the distilleries spread across the country that need to be brought together under one tourism vision.

Outside the Pale, the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton is the biggest whiskey tourism draw that Ireland has right now, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. But what gives Midleton the edge over their Dublin wing is that they have the heritage, the history, and – tucked away behind it all – one of the most modern, efficient distilleries in the world. In recent years Midleton added another attraction – an experimental micro-distillery.

Ignacio Peregrina, General Manager at The Jameson Experience Midleton: “Since we opened in 1992 we have been delighted to welcome over 2.3 million visitors to Midleton. We’re always delighted to bring our heritage to life for new audiences and send people home as strong ambassadors for Irish whiskey. In the last 25 years, we’ve welcomed people from all over the world from Hollywood royalty, Kevin Spacey to Cork royalty, Roy Keane!”

Since opening in 1992 the Midleton centre has welcomed 2.3 million visitors, while last year it hosted 125000. Of the top four countries of origin for visitors, USA made up 25%; Germany 12%; Britain 11% and France 10%.

To the east of Midleton, along the Ancient East, lies Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and home to Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, one of the most impressive operations to set up here in the last five years. With his background (he resurrected Bruichladdich distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, before selling it to Remy Cointreau) he was able to buy an old Guinness brewery, and transform it into a state of the art distillery.

Reynier’s project differs from many others in its dedication to barley – he has been using barley from individual farms to distill individual batches of spirit, meaning you will be able to taste the difference from soil type to soil type, thus proving the concept of terroir. His project is one to watch – and having just secured another 20 million boost from investors, it has no signs of slowing down.

Not far away in the sleepy village of Cappoquin, Peter Mulryan has been creating award winning spirits under his Blackwater Distillery brands. A journalist, author, and whiskey expert, Mulryan is getting ready to move his operation to a larger premises in the nearby village of Ballyduff and, with that, to move to the next stage of his business plan – whiskey tourism.

To the west of Midleton is West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen, and beyond that, Dingle Distillery. Dingle was the vision of the late Oliver Hughes, credited as being the father of craft beer in Ireland after he set up the highly successful Porterhouse chain. Hughes saw opportunity in whiskey too, setting up Dingle before the current boom properly took off. As a result of his foresight, Dingle Distillery single malt is hitting the market at a time when all other whiskeys come from one of the other big three – Midleton, Cooley or Bushmills. Dingle whiskey, much like the town itself, is in a league of its own.

The process of creating whiskey is one of the complications to building an immediate tourism industry around it. First you need to build the distillery, distill your grain, and cask your spirit. Then you wait – while three years is the legal minimum requirement, anything between five and ten years is the accepted minimum for the serious whiskey drinker – and thus, the serious whiskey tourist.

In order to draw tourists here in the same way Scotland draws thousands from across Europe, Ireland will need well-established and well-respected distilleries with quality output. The casual tourist will be happy to visit one distillery on a trip to Ireland, the whiskey tourist will want more than that – they will want distillery exclusives – whereby the distillery sells a particular brand on its own premises and nowhere else – and to be able to visit a number of distilleries in one trip. The Irish Whiskey Association has launched a document laying out its vision for whiskey tourism here, creating a whiskey trail from distillery to distillery so that when the plan comes of age in 2025, there is an accepted route for the discerning whiskey fan.

One thing is for certain – after decades of struggle, Irish whiskey is back with a bang.

Scents and scent ability

So I wrote a bit for the Examiner on the Aroma Academy’s Whisky Nosing Kit, something I had tried to buy on Master Of Malt at Christmas but it sold out. The main piece was on George Dodd, who is a Trinners educated Dub, and head of the Aroma Academy, but this was my lesser contribution:

 

So you’ve decided to become a whiskey geek. You’ve tried a few brands, learned the lingo (arcane terms like dram, NAS, cask-strength), the science (you know the difference between a washback and a Lyne arm) and the history (the two Aeneases, Coffey and MacDonald), and have even bought a tweed blazer in Penneys so that you look the part. But there is one part of whiskey fandom that is hard to perfect; an innate sense that cannot be trained via literature alone – your sense of smell.  

Of all our senses, smell is probably the one we value the least. If forced to pick one to jettison, it is hard to imagine someone binning their ability to see or hear in favour of smell, but it is in its subtlety that its power lies – apart from enabling us to avoid danger, evolutionary biologists suggest that it also helps us recognise family by scent, and thus avoid inbreeding. It should come as little surprise that the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion also processes our sense of smell. How we perceive aromas is often guided by our life experiences. But there are some elements of scent that we can be completely objective about – and whiskey carries many of them. As the most complex spirit in the world, whiskey can be a tough sensory code to crack. How do you train your senses to pick out the key notes? It turns out, much like you can train individual muscles, you can teach your brain to isolate and identify a few of the elements most identified with what should be our national drink.

The Aroma Academy’s Whisky Aroma Kit is a beautifully packaged set ideal for the budding whiskey enthusiast seeking to bone up on their nosing skills, or for the hardcore geek wishing to evangelise friends and family with tutored tastings. Contained within the set are the 24 vials of scent, a helpful book on how to use them, a thorough introduction to Scotch whisky, and some slivers of card that can be used to diffuse the scents, in much the same way perfumeries proffer samples of their wares.

The scents help you understand how the aroma of whisky works – what phenol is, what the experts mean when they suggest there is a whiff of decay, and yet keep on sipping, what a buttery note smells like, how to identify wet peat, solventine, rosewater, or sherry.

The vials themselves are numbered and the list of their actual aromas is contained in the notebook – tutored tastings often see the vials being passed around, with guests being asked to have a guess as to what scent each vial held. It’s a fun way to show how we all perceive reality in completely different ways – could you say for certain that what you think of when someone suggests ‘the smell of cut grass’ would be the exact same as what I think of? And what of the variables – what if you have a slight cold that impedes your sense of smell? The whisky expert Jim Murray – whose annual Whisky Bible reviews thousands of whiskies from all over the world – won’t do any whisky reviews for two weeks after a cold in case it affects his ability to discern elements.

Using the Aroma Academy kit is a great way to tune your senses into the most important elements of whisky, but more than that it gives you the confidence to start proffering opinions on what a whisky smells and tastes like. The 24 scents are some of the key aromatic components, but are also key to ‘talking the whisky talk’. Knowing them is akin to learning scales on the piano before you start rattling out Rachmaninoff. Once you know your phenol from your decay, you can start expanding your vocabulary to include just about anything. A good example of creative tasting notes are those on the bottlings released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They never directly state what distillery the liquid is from, but instead use a  tasting panel to describe it. The results are intriguing – and sometimes baffling. Consider this, a whisky released under the title of ‘Irreverent Painter In Church’: “The nose, with the oiled wood of new church pews, exuded peacefulness and earned reverence – it also had dried papaya and mango, marzipan, lemon curd, sherbet and candied angelica. The palate was chewy and satisfying, with spritzy and zesty elements (orange and lemon jellies, tropical fruits), spiced pear and the sweetness of white chocolate and French Fancies. The reduced nose continued the citric theme – lemon sponge-cake, chocolate limes and a painter with a cigarette in one hand and a margarita in the other. The palate was juicy and rewarding, combining tangy fruits and bitter lemon with cola cubes, pear and chocolate.”

With the guidance of the Whisky Aroma Kit, and a little bit of self confidence, soon you too could be drawing furrowed brows and concerned looks from friends as you prance about in a tweed catsuit talking about whiskies as though they were the Sistine Chapel – or a cocktail of paint thinner and altar wine.

The Aroma Academy Whisky Kit costs a very reasonable stg£99.95 (many other brands cost upwards of 200euro) from http://www.whisky-academy.com.

The Gatekeeper

The Irish have always been good at booze. Whether making it, selling it, or simply consuming it, we have a national identity that is forever linked to – and somewhat soaked in – alcohol. We may wring our hands over the complexities of our relationship with the demon drink, but we sometimes forget the power of being a nation where craic addiction is seen as a good thing. Brand Ireland is as much about a nice drink, a singsong and good company as it is about poetry, prose, saints and scholars – and our skills with alcohol travel with us. Take Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond.

Born in Philadelphia to Irish immigrant parents from Kilrush in County Clare, he served in the army before deciding military life was not for him. He moved to New York and built an empire by bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. Known as ‘the clay pigeon of the underworld’, he survived many assassination attempts and became a socialite and media darling, a loveable Irish American rogue.

Speaking to Louise McGuane, it’s hard not to hear the ghost of Legs Diamond in her voice. Her accent is a bizarre mix of her native Clare and the flat New York Irish of Brooklyn. Like Diamond, she briefly considered a career in the military, even serving a couple of years in the FCA: “My brother was in the Army, he was a cadet and then a captain in the artillery division, so he would have gone off to the Curragh. I loved the whole idea of the Army, the camaraderie and sense of adventure,” she says.

But instead of heading east to fire shots across the Curragh in the rigid world of the armed forces, she opted to head west to America and fire shots across bars in the slightly more fluid world of high-end alcohol sales.

“Well it was the Eighties and Nineties in rural ireland, this was pre-Celtic Tiger – everybody left, it was a cultural thing. I had two aunts that had gone – there was a lot of emigration to the US in my family, I had cousins over there, so when I emigrated there was a cousin waiting to pick me up when I got off the boat, so to speak, and there was a culture of emigration out west anyway. It was just what you did.

“I just sort of fell into the drinks industry. I did philosophy and literature in college – I’m a big believer that whatever your degree is, unless it is something really technical, it is fairly irrelevant to whatever you go on to. And in America they simply don’t care what your degree is in – they just want to know that you can do the job, you’re not really judged on getting a 2.2 or 2.1 or any of that, or at least back then they weren’t. Kids have it tougher now in relation to that in terms of the competition for jobs.”

America, the land of opportunities for thousands of Irish emigrants in the Eighties, was a very different bureaucratic beast to the old country. When she started to work in the drinks industry in the States, McGuane soon realised that the world in which Legs Diamond and others operated – the dry America of the Volstead Act –  still cast its long shadow.

“I was with Moet Hennessy first, doing on the ground sales and marketing work, which is really valuable because the US market is a really tough one to get your head around. Ever since Prohibition all of the individual states set their own liquor laws – so it’s almost like 50 different countries that you have to know individually, and then at county level those laws can change again, as you can have dry counties. You also have state boards that run the liquor so your point of contact for that state in terms of sales would be two guys who work for the state office.”

While the American market is the one she came to know best, she also spent time in Asia, working in the drinks business in Singapore. After spending two decades learning the complexities of the liquor business with luxury brands such as Hennessy and (Tony Soprano’s favourite) Stoli, McGuane had a tough choice to make: Love or career.

“When I was with multinationals I was on the global trek, and you have to move every two or three years, which was great until I got married and then it just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have a trailing spouse, he has a luxury PR business in London so he has to stay there.”

So she quit. But she didn’t stand still for long – and it was a relic from Legs Diamond’s ancestral home that started her on her next adventure.

“It was this one guy, this JJ Corry guy, a Cooraclare native who became a whiskey bonder in Kilrush. I found his label on eBay and I called up the guy with the label and said what do you know about this. I found out all I could about Corry, then I met his great-grand-nephew, and made all these enquiries around his neighbours and the local historical society, and just decided ‘ok, I am going to do this’.

“The initial idea was ‘we’re going to set up a craft distillery, we’re going to set it up on the family farm, it’s going to be great, let’s buy stills’. That was the first idea – but then I thought ‘no we are not doing that’.”

So a distillery was not going to happen – but then McGuane had the crazy notion of resurrecting a long-dead trade. A century ago, the Irish whiskey bonder was a common sight. Grocers and publicans would buy their spirit straight from distillers (who at the time were mere wholesalers themselves) and then age it in their own premises to sell on as they saw fit. Over the decades as the industry contracted and consolidated, distilleries started selling direct to the public, and one by one the bonders disappeared. There are still relics of that time, famously the Yellow Spot and Green Spot whiskeys, but they are as close to bonded whiskeys as birds are to dinosaurs.

So McGuane set to work. After using her extensive knowledge to put together a copper-fastened business plan, she turned to crowd-funding fountainhead Kickstarter to raise equity. She offered a variety of buy-ins, from small gifts aimed squarely at the Irish American market – a packet of shamrock from the Emerald Isle – to week-long stays in her County Clare home (a half-mile from the house Legs Diamond’s ancestors hailed from)  which has a backstory all of its own.

“So my grandmother was born in that property. My great aunt died in estate, so my dad had to borrow money from my aunt in Alabama to buy it back – and he did, back in the Eighties. So it’s all part of the family farm, which is dairy and peat. My uncle used to grow barley, so it is barley country – and growing it in the future is something I’m not ruling out, that whole grain-to-glass.”

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

But the property was completely transformed under McGuane’s guidance, from a traditional farm cottage to an architecturally designed beauty, all glass walls, brushed concrete and stylish Scandinavian aesthetics. It has become part of the brand for Chapel Gate, as her business is now known, being the HQ for investor meetings and venue for business events.

“With the Kickstarter I sold eighteen stays in my house – I raised 18,000 that way! It’s a beautiful house and it ended up being a really good asset for the business. It’s right next to the rackhouse, on the same plot, and I’ve have a few potential customers come over, a few potential importers too, and it then becomes a really good spot to show people the modern face of the brand and show them how we operate from a design perspective.”

The only possibly downside is that, should it all go south, all her investors now knows where she lives – although McGuane is quick to point out that hers is a pretty solid investment.

“A distillery was the first idea – but then I thought, no, we are not doing that. Maybe in the future-future-future, but who knows. The bonding piece, that is awesome, that’s far more low risk from a business perspective. The assets that I’m acquiring are appreciable assets – so if everything goes horrifically wrong I sell off all of my assets, and everybody gets their money back. The whole buying-a-still, commissioning-a-still – I don’t have that headache, whatever headaches I’ve had are nothing next to the headaches the guys setting up all over the country have.”

But one of the minor headaches she did have was trying to ensure that her investors were the best kind – connected ones.

“The kind of investors you get in this business – you don’t get institutional investors because your break even is about seven years if you’re lucky, and then your payback is if you suddenly sell out to somebody, because there will be a time where nobody is buying Irish whiskey distilleries anymore and what’s gone is gone. And then you have lifestyle investors – maybe ten guys who like the idea of saying ‘I have a distillery in Ireland’ and they come over and they taste whiskey and they have good connections like hotel chains, so you have to figure out who you want to invest, get the right investors for your business and your model.  Then when you become a going concern, then you’re into institutional investment, but in the early days you gotta pick your investors really carefully.

“All the investors care about is what’s the downside, if this goes under do I get my money back, and with the bonding model you get your money back, but with the distillery model you won’t because there is all this debt owed on the cap-ex basically. You have to prove to people that the downside is all but zero and then you’re alright.”

Chapel Gate is now officially more than ‘alright’, as McGuane, since mid-December, is Ireland’s first licensed whiskey bonder in half a century. But with resurrecting a lost trade comes the need to resurrect a lost section of State tax law, and with that comes hassle.

When I ask if she has any advice on setting up an Irish whiskey company, she has this tip: “Don’t set up an Irish whiskey company. Definitely don’t do it on your own. It is a terrible idea. Because we are in the resurgence of the industry, there is no living memory, no institutional memory in government bodies.

“So normally the guys at Pernod, they had their revenue officer, they had their HSE guy, they had whoever else they had been dealing with for the last 50 years down in Midleton, and nobody in any of those departments had to even consider these issues. And now suddenly I have my revenue guy in Limerick – who, by the way, is brilliant, shoutout, love him – his name is David Browne and honestly he is fantastic. As a public servant the man deserves a bonus – he is brilliant. The process was new for him, it was new for me, I approached revenue in complete fear, panicking as to what was going to happen, and we worked it all out together, and he was incredibly supportive.”

Supportive he may have been, but her struggle to get the business off the ground was not without it’s difficulties, as catalogued on her blog. McGuane’s knowledge of the industry means she has confidence in speaking out against bureaucracy and what she sees as unfair control of the market by big firms – including her former employers, Pernod, owners of Irish Distillers Limited, the custodians of Irish whiskey.

Her trials and tribulations with her own project were all laid out on her blog, moving from frustration, to anger, to joy – the full rollercoaster of emotions that come with bringing a project like this to life. But while it played out like a sweeping epic, her journey from genesis to licensed whiskey bonder has been rather a short one.

“One year from Kickstarter to bonding; it feels like it has been about a decade. But the blog and social media aren’t just about keeping people involved in the project – it’s also an outlet. I use it a lot to vent, because I am usually just sitting in an office on my own all day, it’s me and Ruby the dog, and that is very difficult, because it feels like forever, and there is no one there to bounce ideas off. So social media is a way to share the experience with people, so people have to hear the sort of nonsense you have to go through. I use it sometimes to make a point as I know the Revenue reads it and I know the local planners read it, so every once in a while I will use it to deliver a barbed question at them on whether or not they want to create jobs.”

In a business like hers, however, the number of jobs is fairly low – although she did advertise for a warehouse cat (one that, presumably, must love dogs).

Because she resurrected a dead trade, she also needed to hire someone versed in an almost dead craft; coopering. Currently there are only a handful of qualified coopers working in Ireland, so she set about finding one with a bit of time on his hands.

“Our cooper Eugene Quinlan is from Midleton, and he worked with IDL up until the 1990s when they got rid of them all. He does that trip now from Midleton to west Clare every couple of weeks, and it is a trek. He comes up every couple of weeks, so if we bring in any casks he can check them over, he comes up and repairs leakages, and also just to keep an eye on the wood, check the casks over, make sure everything is as it should be.

“There are four coopers in Ireland. There’s Ger (Buckley, in Midleton) who has an apprentice now, there’s somebody at Bushmills and an apprentice there too, there’s a guy at Nephin, John Neilly, who is actually Scottish originally.”

The lack of whiskey experience in the job market here – and the abundance of it in Scotland – is another stumbling block to setting up a whiskey business in Ireland.

“Finding staff is a real issue here as almost anyone working within the industry in Ireland right now is working for a massive multinational, so they probably have a pretty sweet package going on and a nice pension – you are not going to poach those older guys away, the really experienced guys, as there is no culture of moving around from distillery to distillery like there is in Scotland. So everybody is looking to America, they are looking to Scotland, they’re looking all over basically. But that is just one of the growing pains of an emerging industry and we are just going to have to go through that for a while.

“You have to go outside the country to look for someone – but I struggle with parts of this. If you’re going to bring in a Scotch whisky expert, their palate is going to be very much in that sphere, technically.

“But there are guns for hire, liquid consultants in Ireland, Scotland and America, and Sweden – mostly women actually – and I work with some of those. Their palates are very wide, so you give them a brief on Irish whiskey and they will get into that headspace. So you have to carefully pick who you work with. I am actually now using a Scottish liquid consultant and he is doing a great job.

“But there is change here; the Carlow Institute of Technology has their recently launched brewing and distilling programme, and IDL have a particularly good internal programme where they are going to start to share their knowledge with newcomers to the industry within the Irish Whiskey Association.”

The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) is the body which oversees the category in Ireland – but like everything else here, it is a newborn entity that is going to a mix of very large, powerful firms (Pernod, Brown-Forman, Diageo) and almost micro operations like McGuane’s. So in order to balance this out, the smaller firms are banding together.

“I work very hard to make it happen – on Friday we are having a meeting in Limerick of about eight of us. It’s very informal, just a lunch… but the industry is so new, that all of us have just had our heads down just trying to get through licensing and all that…But I have high hopes that the smaller firms will start to come together. We all have common issues, for example the craft drinks bill affects all of us; the wholesale market affects all of us, the excise and duty – we need relief for that for smaller producers, we have to have that.”

The craft drinks bill is an issue for Irish alcohol producers as a whole so the IWA will be pushing have the law changed so that distillers and brewers and bonder  (singular; currently McGuane is the only one) are able to sell direct to the public from their premises without having to fork out 80 grand to buy a pub licence.

“The craft drinks bill is really imperative – I’m just joining the IWA formally, and I went along when they were launching their tourism initiative, which is great. But my concern is this: With programmes like the mentorship, none of those firms are going to be paying 80 grand to get a license to sell direct to customers from their distillery, because the pay-off on an investment like that happens over years and years, depending on where you are and on how you are doing it. Maybe you would get the payback in a year, in areas where there is a lot of tourism, but in rural areas where tourism is seasonal? The crafts drinks bill is, in my opinion, tantamount to the success of those firms and the IWA tourism strategy itself. It wasn’t integrated into the IWA strategy because it came out of nowhere the week leading up to the launch, but Alan Kelly TD (proposer of the bill) was there and he spoke about the bill, and it is really important to the success of us smaller guys.

“And the smaller guys is often where the really interesting stuff happens. It’s nice to visit big massive distilleries, but you’ve been to a million of them, I’ve been to a million of them, it’s the same-old same-old. It’s going to the smaller craft guys that has real value – both for the tourism and for the industry, those rural regions that need it.

“Scotland has the market cornered in whisky destination tourism – but here in Ireland we have the Wild Atlantic Way and a whiskey trail that could piggyback on the success of that, but it will take a lot of close work with Bord Fáilte and with the IWA, to make it happen. It needs definitive timelines and it needs that craft drinks bill to make it happen for the smaller guys.”

Another issue she would like to see the IWA tackle is some of the shenanigans in the independent bottling scene, which is awash with non-existent distilleries, false provenance, and the products of three distilleries being sold by third parties under multiple identities.

“The lack of transparency in the Irish whiskey industry is bullshit, and it needs to be addressed. Even Compass Box had real issues with this in Scotland,” she adds, referring to the brand who fought for the right to tell consumers what was in every bottle on the label. The SWA won that battle, but the new sheriff in town here, the IWA, has a far larger mess to untangle.

“The SWA and the IWA are very different bodies, the SWA is very mature and well-established, while the IWA’s core focus for 2017 is clamping down on labelling, but at the moment they are just on category level – so you can’t call yourself Irish whiskey if you finished your whiskey in Scotland, like (the recently withdrawn) Craoi Na Mona.

“I think there needs to be more transparency – and this is one of the reasons I am so open on social media about what I am doing; there is no bullshit in what I’m doing, I’m really open about where I get my stuff from, what I’m doing with it, although I actually can’t put on my label that it’s from Cooley or GND. I can’t boast about where it’s from as I’m not allowed to, but I will be 100% transparent to anyone at any time if I can.

“I don’t think it’s right that everyone is getting stuff from Cooley and everyone is just banging a label on it and making stuff up and creating false provenance. I appreciate that we are in a weird time, that we are all trying to build brands, but I don’t think anyone is buying it anymore – or at least, anybody in the know isn’t buying it.”

She also practices what she preaches, being incredibly transparent on every aspect of her operation:

Barrels: “I’m not going to tell you exactly where I get my casks from; but I spent about a year looking to get casks as there is a global cask shortage because there is such demand at the moment particularly in the US. But there are key cooperages you go to for ex-bourbon casks, mostly in Louisville Kentucky, there’s a bunch of coopers in Minnesota as well, so the barrels are located in those kind of hubs. I was going to all the big guys and they were all telling me it was an 18-month wait, a two-year wait, just for ex bourbon, so I found  a guy in Louisville in the end who only supplies to small craft guys, who gets casks directly off the lines basically, and he has cousins who work at the various distilleries, he is very small scale, has his own little cooperage and if I say ‘go to Jack Daniels and get me so many ex-single casks’ he can do that on a tiny scale. So he is my go to guy for ex bourbon and the scale is perfect for me.

“Then there’s a number of middle-men who sell on ex-port, and ex-Bordeaux, and ex-sherry casks as well. There’s a big company called Shen, based out of France, who bring in new American oak and things like that. So I get bits and pieces from those guys, but mostly I am starting to go direct to distilleries and direct to other wineries in particular. I do this as I am so small scale that I can, and it’s more economical as barrels are very expensive, particularly if you have a middle man, and the places I am going I can hand pick them, if I like the whiskey I can get one of their used casks.”

Spirit: “At the moment I am working with grain and malt, I’m working with John Teeling’s Great Northern Distillery, and they are moving to pot still now as well. The stills they have are fairly steampunk, they are converted kettles basically, so they were ironing out a few kinks, but they are really there now. Alan Anderson is the master distiller there and he is super flexible. Because it is early days for them they are very willing to work with you – if you want to mess about with mash bills and mess about with distillation times, they will do it. Or you can just push the button for you and spit out the usual stuff. But we are now starting to get into the phase where we are getting batches, so my first batch we fiddled about with the mashbill, and batch two was in January, and we started to make that more bespoke, tweaking it here and there.

“I went for grain and malt 50/50 because I think grain is starting to move up the ranks, the Teelings are doing really interesting things with grain, and finishing grain is something that is being played around with massively. But all of that is something that you just have to wait and see with, as you don’t really know what is going to happen in the cask, I can’t really plan until it is ready. But all those variables are one of the nice things about it – you don’t just turn on a pipe and get whiskey. There are many variables.”

Ageing: “We are racking, not palletising, so our capacity is about 550. A good start, and we have 110 in at the moment, with batch two going in May, and another batch by the end of the year so I reckon we will be at full capacity within two years. At the moment I am 100% focused on what I have just done, get a quality source of whiskey, get the right people around me, I have a great cooper and I have some liquid consultants and a really good source of casks from the US, rackhouse sorted, licensing done, boom boom boom, and the next piece is forward planning. So I’ve put together a wood programme where I am chopping down trees to send wood to Spain or Portugal for drying out so that in two years I can put whiskey in my own casks. So in 2017 I’ve had to start planning for three to five years ahead. The same thing goes with supply so I have X amount and while I have a contract for this year and next years I have to think about a decade from now – how much more whiskey do I need to cask for in ten years time? The same goes for rackhouses – I’ve built one now, so do I build another one, do I build a bigger one, where is the next one going, when is it going, I have to apply for planning and so on. So I need to make a firm plan for the next decade. We are playing the long game here.”

On bringing out a sourced blend: “What we are working on at the moment is this: I have my new-fill in cask, and I just have to wait obviously, and see what happens, and then in the interim I have a source of mature malt and a little bit of mature grain as well, so we are working on a very small launch portfolio. So we are going to come out with two …. I’m not even 100% sure yet, a single malt, but that might change, but we want to done very transparently, I mean we all know where the stock comes from….There is actually a smattering of different stocks that I have purchased, with a bit of Bushmills kinda thrown in randomly, and every cask has a really interesting backstory, some casks I’m really trying to dig into a try to figure out how they’re going to end up there. But we are coming out with a very small portfolio so we want to build a brand, get into the US, be very transparent about it. I don’t have enough stock to keep me going very long. I will barely make it to three years and I don’t know if we will be releasing anything in three years, probably not. Really you want to go to eight years, but will I get to eight years? Not now. Definitely not where I am right now.

“The wholesale market for a producer, for someone like me, supply is a massive issue. There is no supply. There’s not mature whiskey out there. Whatever you can get your hands on, you get your hands on it right away, before the price might do up. For me it just made sense to get my hands on what I could and then be transparent about that, and start to use that to start breaking my way into my core markets. I want to have a product that starts to express the style of whiskey that we want to make moving forward as best we can and then when we are ready with our own 100% bonded whiskey that we have aged ourselves and finished ourselves that we can lay more claim to I will have a market ready for that.”

On releasing a gin or vodka: “No, and here’s why. I was at Fortnum & Mason, so I went to the liquor department simply because I wanted to see what was going on. It’s one of those stores that you want to be in, you want your brand in there, no matter how much you might sell you just want to be on the shelf because it is just a great store to be in. And there was shelves and shelves of stock, Mortlach was there obviously behind bulletproof glass, and then there was a craft whiskey section, and there was a small shelf with irish whiskey on it with about eight brands, and then there was a gin section and it was the length of this hotel foyer, a 25 metre long, five foot high gin extravaganza. I love gin, I know gin, I know the category well, I worked with Tanqueray for a number of years, but I just don’t have the capacity to launch a super premium gin product into a very crowded super premium gin category and work it. It needs more PR and marketing, and more people to do those things. So my shtick is – make one thing and make it really well, so I am focussed on whiskey.”

So she is in for the long haul – but is the boom in the category? Can Irish whiskey sustain this incredible momentum?

“Eventually it will plateau but it will keep flying now for quite a while. Look at Asia. I spent a lot of time there, and if you go anywhere in Asia and ask for an Irish whiskey, you will be pointed to Ballantines or something as there is zero category knowledge or impact. Nobody has won there; Pernod has a tough time in Asia generally, but they haven’t launched the category there successfully, so that market is still completely closed, but it is going to open, they are going to start making inroads there. There is interest there now  – there are Irish Whiskey Societies setting up in Hong Kong and Macau.”

A key trend she has identified is premiumisation – where a whisky is given a massive price tag due to a combination of age and a marketing department focussed on the super-premium category. It’s also humorously known as ‘Mortlachisation’ after Diageo ramped up the price of the previously accessibly Mortlach.

“I think there is a massive opportunity in ultra premium, which not everybody is going to want to hear, but it is there. The reason you’re going to see it coming out of Ireland is that we have genuine rarity. In terms of older, more mature whiskey in Ireland, you can’t get it. There is no open market, there won’t be an open market for 20-year-old whiskey until 20 years from now, so rarity in Ireland is even more exclusive than rarity in Scotland, where there are warehouses and warehouses of bulk whisky – there are three or four warehouses of that sort of aged stock in Ireland and most of it is accounted for. Ultra premium will definitely happen, based on rarity and based on design.”

Her predictions have already come true, with Irish Distillers recently taking the bold step of releasing a 31-year-old single grain for 1,500 a bottle. However, this doesn’t mean that the average consumer will have to pay more for their standard issue drams.

“It won’t hit consumers as it’s a category in itself. At that level it isn’t even seen as Irish whiskey – it is simply a luxury item. When it’s a 20,000 bottle of whiskey it supersedes the category of whiskey and becomes a luxury item – and that’s all it is at that juncture. But there is a market for that. Scotland, and all the big guys – Diageo in particular – have been playing that game very very well for a long time. You’re starting to see it trickle through here too in duty free, the Teelings have some really interesting releases recently, they started to be a bit more design led, we have something in the pipeline as well coming down the line. It’s an inevitability and I know people don’t like it, but it is more like a luxury product.

“There’s a halo effect – and Scotland does that very well, like Johnny Walker portfolio has whiskies that you can buy for 55,000 pounds, it’s not about how many you sell at that level, and I’m not predicting a 55k Irish whiskey any time soon, but it does become a PR event. But everyone does still want their blended Irish whiskey or their ten-year-old or their 15-year-old – so it doesn’t have to have a knock-on for the average consumer.”

So the boom is getting boomier. And thus it was for Legs Diamond back in the 1920s, and after making his fortune in liquor during Prohibition, he forged out on his own. However, once out of the protection of the syndicates, he was vulnerable, and ultimately someone caught up with the clay pigeon of the underworld, and he paid a supreme penalty. While it seems unlikely that a beret-clad French assassin is coming for McGuane (good luck to them finding Cooraclare), I ask her if it is worth it – forging out on your own, leaving the safety of a giant multinational, to pursue your own dreams, to put it all on the line just to be your own boss.

“By a factor of about 15,000, yeah. Those big multinationals are fantastic in that you learn, you work hard, you are exposed to a multitude of cultures, you get to know markets very intimately, and you get very specific market knowledge. So I could tell you the names of the top five bars in New York or Miami, or Seattle; I know my market down to that level because multinationals expect you to know that from the sales guys on the ground selling a case a week all the way up to category trends and market strategy – all that breadth of knowledge. Some of that information becomes useless when you come out on your own, but it is the confidence it gives you – I can walk into a room full of investors and know my category and my market better than anyone.

“I miss the perks though – the wildly extravagant expense accounts, the business class flying, and all the gold cards I used to have on all the airlines. Now it’s Ryanair, all the time, basically.”

With a growing stockpile of spirit, as well as plans ahead to release a sourced blend, and even a brand celebrating the legend of Legs Diamond, she may be due a seat upgrade to business class sooner than she thinks.

Footnote: There was a great profile of Louise in the Indo which you can read here, and it contains a lot of material I didn’t touch on. Louise’s blog is located here and is really worth a read for anyone interested in whiskey, start-ups or Kafkaesque labyrinths of bureaucracy.  

There are two categories in Irish whiskey start-ups – the schemers and the dreamers. The schemers are the ones bottling anything they can get their hands on and pretending the are so much more than they are. The dreamers are the ones who actually went and created something more than just a label – people like Mark Reynier, Peter Mulryan and Louise McGuane. I was lucky enough to interview all three, and while they all have different routes to Irish whiskey, all are striving for the betterment of the category as a whole, and they deserve every support. 

Local man starts working for Irish Examiner, takes back everything he said about them

Is there any news softer than rich, creamy advertorial? There is not, and I can write the softest, most meaningless advertorial of all. I got the chance to do some on a few businesses in Midleton, so here they are.

All hail Midleton

Midleton is a prosperous town. You can feel it when you walk down the street – there is a buzz there that many other town of similar size have lost over the past decade. Even in the teeth of the recession, Midleton was doing well. Set in a valley between the low rolling hills of east Cork, the town is surrounded by lush farmland, and has been the marketplace for their produce for centuries – a tradition carried on since the establishment of the local farmers market, the first of its kind in Ireland. Allowing farmers and smaller food producers to sell direct to the public,  a visit to the market is a Saturday morning tradition for many locals, picking up delicacies from Belvelly Smokehouse, Ballyhoura Mushroom or Woodside Farm. The market reestablishes a connection between consumer and product – the producers happily chatting with the customers about the food they are offering.

Next door to the market is the town’s multi award winning SuperValu, owned by the Hurley family.

Another key to the thriving main street is the local shopping centre. Rather than locating it out of the town, as has happened in many places around Ireland, Market Green SC is a short five minute walk from the main street, meaning shoppers can easily access both for their weekly shop. This has avoided what is known as the ‘doughnut effect’ – whereby the main street becomes hollowed out as the footfall is drawn to an out of town shopping centre. Market Green sits on the site of the old town mart, and anchor tenant Tesco draws the crowds that keep other outlets on the premises alive – opticians, pharmacies, health shops, barbers, hairdressers and a large branch of Heatons.

East Cork has built a brand around excellence in food and drink – a fact reinforced by the annual food festival, which sees tens of thousands of visitors descend on the town for a day of the best Cork has to offer. One of the main sponsors of the event is also one of the town’s main employers. For the last 200 years there has been a distillery in the town, one that is currently the home of Irish whiskey, producing the vast bulk of what is now the world’s fastest growing drinks category. Jameson, although associated with Dublin, has been flowing from Midleton for 40 years, and the presence of the distillery has contributed much to the success of the region, being an excellent employer. When other towns in the region lost big companies overseas, Irish Distillers committed to Midleton, giving the town confidence in its economic muscle. It’s not hard to see the firm’s influence on the town, from the whiskey displays in the recently opened JJ Coppingers, to the counter made from whiskey barrels in the award winning Sage restaurant.

One example of the distillery’s importance in the community came at a recent auction of farmland close to their current facility. Initially offered in several lots, IDL bought the entire package and then entered talks with the other bidders and a local sports club about disposing of some of the lands to them, showing that the distillery works with and for the local community.

Close to the old distillery, now the busy Jameson heritage centre, lies the recently developed Distillery Lanes shopping complex and multi storey car park. The 30m development is home to a number of retail outlets, as well as Asian street food vendor Ramen, but the largest and best known tenant is party food specialists Iceland – an essential supplier to the Christmas season. East Cork is spoiled for food and drink – from excellent restaurants like Sage, Raymonds and The Granary, to Ballymaloe House and Garryvoe Hotel; there is something to suit all tastes. The town is also home to artisan bakers Cuthberts, and O’Farrells Butchers, a mainstay in the town for more than half a century.

As an indicator of the economic strength of a town like Midleton, their property market survived the recession better than most, with well-known local auctioneers Colbert & Co, Hegarty Properties and Cronin Wall all thriving during some lean years. A sure sign of green shoots is in the opening of Factory Carpets on the main street, while other home improvement outlets such as Lakewood Furniture and Midleton Gates are helping homeowners apply a little TLC to their abodes.

In the 1880s, a British journalist named Alfred Barnard toured the distilleries of Ireland for Harpers magazine. He was very impressed with Midleton, speaking glowingly of the vale as a healthy and fertile country, and the town’s two rivers full of salmon. Two centuries last little has changed – the whiskey still flows, the land is still fertile and the people still as welcoming and prosperous as those who greeted Barnard. The town has a perfect blend of rich countryside, excellent facilities and a population who appreciate the finer things in life: It’s a success story worth toasting – slainte!

Let there be lights 

Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year – but in Midleton two years ago, there were concerns that it might not come at all. Or rather, the town’s festive lights might not. The local traders group had ordered new street illuminations from a firm in Spain, securing a 50% reduction on a market price of €120,000. However, due to a delay in the order, it was into December before they were up and running. So were they worth waiting for? According to Joe McCarthy, the municipal district officer for the region, they most definitely were. Mr McCarthy is quick to point out that the firm they used for the lights is one of the best in Europe, and many of large European cities use them for their festive illuminations.

But Midleton deserves the best: “Midleton has always been a very strong trading town – the offer in the town is very diverse,” Mr McCarthy says.

To illustrate the town’s draw, he points out that when the town was bypassed, rather than taking business away from the main street, it actually made it a more pleasant experience for shoppers, alleviating traffic woes. Mr McCarthy also says that businesses are helped by the town being in the rare position of having more than enough parking spaces in the vicinity of the street, including two large car parks and a multi storey.

The old lights were a decade old, and had endured the extremes of winter storms as well as the big freeze in 2009 and 2010, so they had served the region well. The new town lights had a similarly rough introduction to Irish weather, having endured the violent storms last January, which saw part of the town flood. Mr McCarthy says they are currently being repaired by technicians from the parent company in Spain, and are due to be in place and ready for the switching on on November 26th, with the lights outside the courthouse and along the Babys Walk already in situ. Mr McCarthy is quick to pay tribute to the town’s traders who helped make the Christmas lights a success, including Fergus McCarthy of McCarthy’s Newsagents and Rachel McCarthy of Ina McCarthy Flowers, who were both drivers of the project.

Mr McCarthy says that a key to Midleton’s success is its sizeable catchment area – stretching from Ballycotton to Dungourney, Leamlara to Garryvoe, people in the region see the town as being theirs – it’s where they go to shop, to dine, to socialise, to spend. Midleton’s economic might is such that Mr McCarthy wants to share their success – as part of the Ancient East tourism initiative, new signage at the entrance of the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town will encourage the tens of thousands of visitors there to explore the region further. Mr McCarthy is also pushing ahead with plans to reopen the Youghal-Midleton rail line as a greenway, as has been done to many rail tracks around the country with great success.

The message is clear – Midleton is a commercial powerhouse in east Cork, and as Ireland emerges from the worst recession for decades, it looks like this could be the best Christmas yet for traders in east Cork; a real light at the end of the tunnel. 

Pubs

East Cork owes a lot to the monks. The largest town in the region, Midleton was founded by Cistercian monks, a fact reflected by the Irish name which means ‘monastery by the weir’. Then there was the monks’ love of ale and spirits – they kept the tradition of brewing alive in the dark ages and brought the Moorish practice of distilling back to Ireland, which in turn lead to whiskey production – another factor in the success of Midleton.  

Somehow it seems fitting that the place where the monastery by the weir once stood is now a bar named the Mad Monk. And if that didn’t seem serendipitous enough, it also happens to be a bar that specializes in craft beer and whiskey – two of the biggest success stories in food and drink in Ireland in the past decade.

Manager Joe Philpott is quick to point out that they can’t simply rest on their laurels – they host guest beers from around the country and around the world, and also are one of the few pubs in the town serving food in the evenings. After 35 years working in the trade, Joe has seen the changes the last 20 years have brought and know that there has to be something more than just a pint – even if people are slow to change their perceptions of what a pub should be. During the summer months they hosted live music four nights a week, and they also cater to a large Czech population living locally, importing the best beers from their home country and posting updates on social media when a new beer has arrived from Eastern Europe. They also stock many Alltech beers, and even received a visit from Alltech’s founder, agritech billionaire Pearse Lyons, at the start of the summer.

There is also a craft beer link to the town’s newest pub, located at the other end of the main street. Owned by the family behind the famous craft beer pub The Cotton Ball, JJ Coppingers is named after a local man who fought in the American Civil War, whose family owned a brewery next door to where the pub now sits. The building itself has quite a history, having been designed by Gothic Revivalist architect AW Pugin, who designed much of the interiors of the British Houses Of Parliament.

Although owned by the Lynches, Coppingers is run by the same team behind The Castle in Glanmire and The Elm Tree in Glounthaune. A surprisingly cosmopolitan bar, no expense was spared in renovating the premises earlier this year. Set for their first festive season in the town, the venue has a packed schedule of live gigs to keep the punters happy – reflecting the modus operandi of all business owners in the town; you have to diversify. In fact, Coppingers also has an upstairs space that has the potential to offer space for a full kitchen down the road.

Across the street sits Wallis’s Town Hall Bar, the other late bar in Midleton. A staple of nightlife in the town for decades, it boasts a booming daytime and nighttime trade, with the late crowds drawn in by a commitment to live music – from DJs to rock bands to string quartets on Sunday afternoons – owner Seamus Cunningham has diversified to suit a changing market and changing tastes.

Across the road is another business that has changed many times – McCarthy’s Newsagents. Originally a grocers back when it opened in the 1960s, it later became solely a newsagents and book store, but owner Fergus McCarthy knows that you cannot rest on your laurels; they branched out to offer coffees and ice creams in the shop and have seen great success. However, however they have modernised the business, the family still carry on one old tradition – that of living over the shop, making them about the only trader in the town who does so. An enthusiastic ukulele player, Fergus organised the music for the switching on of the Christmas light last year, while his wife Susan is also heavily involved in the community, as she is the local county councillor. They prove that in business as in life, the key to success is having more than one string to your bow – or ukulele.

Midle chords 

The hills of east Cork have long been alive with the sound of music. Back in the heyday of Tony and Charlie Moore’s iconic Meeting Place bar, musical icons like Christy Moore used to come play candlelit gigs to a rapt audience. In more recent times local viral sensations Crystal Swing rocketed to fame and a guest spot on Ellen thanks to their star quality. The town also boasts a very active brass band, officially titled the Midleton Holy Rosary Brass & Reed Band at their outset in 1951, they now operate as Midleton Concert Band, and have a busy festive schedule ahead.

But there is one music group in Midleton that sums up the best in both community and festive spirit – the East Cork Music Project. Started in 2011 by youth worker Claire Seymour, the courses they run have helped more than a hundred kids in the area express their creativity through art and music whilst also building important life skills.

Ms Seymour’s background was with another socially aware music project, the Cork Academy Of Music, where she saw how young people who might not necessarily be the sporty type, or the academic type, or might struggle to fit in, were able to find their voice through music. Inspired by this, she decided to bring a project to Midleton that would offer formal and informal training to young people, to keep them off the streets and out of harm’s way. So she applied for funding – and things happened faster than she thought.

“Our funding comes from Cork Education Training Board and our sponsors are Cork Diocesan Youth Services. Before I had a premises or anything I applied for funding, so I was in for a shock when a call came through telling me I had two weeks to get a space for classes – and pupils.”

Ms Seymour started with the basics – just asking young people if they would be interested in learning a musical instrument. Soon she had her first class, and after a move or two they found a home in Midleton Community Centre. There she and other tutors teach 25 kids in two music centred programmes – a FETAC Level 4 and a Level 5 that also teach employment skills and personal development. The skills learned in these courses have helped graduates go on to study music further in Cork’s School Of Rock, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, and to gain employment in Midleton. The project gives them a chance they might never have had otherwise – as exemplified by a recent trip to Sweden, when Ms Seymour took 25 of her students on a cultural exchange programme to a similar group of students. The two groups came together and created music and art over five days under the auspices of Léargas – a trip of a lifetime for many of the participants.

The students also share their creativity with the local community in east Cork – they recently engaged in an art project with residents of the community hospital to create a large scale mural in the grounds of the community garden. The project’s contribution to the town has not gone unnoticed, with people in the locality donating musical instruments to the students, whilst a former janitor of Midleton Community Centre donated a car to the project. There has also been fund-raising for them – An Teach Beag pub, known locally as Banners, held an all day music marathon for the East Cork Music Project, raising €2,500, while a local choir has donated €1,000 raised through concerts they held.

But for all the musical creativity the project has inspired in the participants and the wider community, Ms Seymour says that the real rewards are seeing the kids communicating: “What we do here is create a space for the students to communicate and participate in something creative. It helps teach them to find their voice – to express how they are feeling. The greatest reward at the end of each term is seeing a student who has found some self belief, who has found some confidence in themselves and their own abilities and creativity.”

The East Cork Music Project is an example of the best of community spirit – creative, inclusive, educational, enriching. Plato said “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” At a time of year when people celebrate the child, Ms Seymour’s project and its participants are a shining beacon of hope for a better tomorrow – where no child is left behind.

-To donate to the project, or to just see some of their work, you can contact them on eastcorkmusicproject@gmail.com, or at  https://www.facebook.com/Eastcorkmusicproject/.