Start to Finnish

A curious thing about the passage of time is how it is slower in our minds than it is in reality. Looking forward to anything feels like forever, while looking back it all seems like yesterday. In 2014 I was stumbling into an obsession with whiskey when I came across an Irish name in a feature on a distillery in Helsinki. I got in touch with the person – Seamus Holohan – and interviewed him for the Evening Echo, because if it has even the vaguest connection to Cork, it has got to go in the Echo. He was at the start of his business journey with two old friends, talking about bringing rye whisky to the Finnish market. Thinking to myself, well, four years is a long-ass time to stay in touch for updates, I put the Helsinki Distillery from my mind and completely forgot about Seamus and his dreams until earlier this year when I saw a tweet about new travel retail whisky from Finland – Seamus’s distillery had a whisky. Naturally, being completely shameless, I asked for a sample to review, and Seamus, being a genial chap, sent me an entire bottle, and filled me in on what had been happening for the Helsinki Distillery since we last spoke.

“The last four years have been spent building the factory, the storage spaces, raising capital, starting sales on several fronts, hiring, launching products to help fund the whiskey production, and realising that making products is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the spirits business – it’s all about the brand.

“I can thorough recommend starting a distillery to anybody who wishes to call themselves a true entrepreneur and work the proverbial 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. At the same time we opened the visitor centre (another huge project), won many international awards with our Spirits, and by accident have created a new Premium Long Drink category.”

Long drinks like the Tom Collins are well known around the world, but in Finland the long drink is a distinct category all on its own. Dating back to the summer Olympics in 1952, the Finns wanted to be the perfect hosts and so they came up with the Finnish Long Drink, a beverage usually concocted from a mix of gin and grapefruit soda. It was a hit, and is still so popular to this day that you can often get it on draught.

Finland has remarkably progressive taxation policies, low crime rates and high employment. But starting a business in a utopia is just as hard as starting one anywhere else, as Seamus discovered.

“This has been the most difficult start-up I have been involved with but also the most interesting. Now the company is moving to the next stage and I¹m spending more time with Excel and the joys of budgeting, sales plans and the like. Nobody has asked me for over two years if the company will still be in existence in five years and we have 14 people employed between the distillery and visitor centre. Is survival the new success?”

As for the rye, it has a beautiful look, one that was very consciously Nordic: “The idea was to have a Nordic whiskey without copying a Scottish or Irish whiskey, for example. Also we have the ambition to not only distill the Nordic ingredients (hence the local crop here of rye) but also to try to use the Nordic simplicity in the design of the label and speak something of the culture and traditions of the Nordics. The bottle should convey premium, include only the amount of information required but all that whiskey enthusiasts want, give the feel of small batch, and made with care. The label is designed by Aleksi Ahjopalo (https://www.ahjopalo.com/) and the box comes from Starcke (http://www.starcke.fi/en/home/).”

While rye may have bought them locavore cool, it is also a thriving category – American rye whiskey production increased by 778% between 2009 and 2016, equaling a 900% rise in revenue, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. So the Helsinki Distillery is straddling two key trends – interesting grains, and whisky from non-traditional countries. But success will all hinge on the liquid.

And what of this liquid – there have been four releases from the distillery, two 100% rye malt and two mixed mash whiskeys. I was gifted release number two, the official details of which are as follows:

Helsinki Whiskey 100% Rye Malt Release #2 is blended from two casks. Master Distiller Mikko Mykkänen has chosen the casks. They are small, 28 litre casks made from new French oak. The oak used in making these casks comes from the regions of Allier and Limousin in France. They give the whiskey a beautiful golden colour and add balanced notes of vanilla, honey and herbal spiciness. The whiskey has been matured for a minimum of three years.

Nose: Vanilla and caramel from the oak cask, malted rye and freshly baked rye loaf from the distillate. Honey and dark chocolate.

Flavor: Rich and deep mouthfeel. Aroma has notes of vanilla, dried apricots, toffee, licorice, herbs, even a hint of dark roasted coffee. A drop of water will bring out the tannins of the cask and reduce the sweetness.

Aftertaste: Long, it lingers on the insides of the cheeks. Spiciness of rye whiskey, especially white pepper, abundantly evident. Alcohol content is 47,5 %, which brings out the whiskey’s aromas. Few drops of water can be added to the whiskey if so desired.

As always, my policy here is that water is for plants – give it to me as strong as possible and don’t spare the burn. Anyway:

On the nose – that dusty, musty scent you get when you walk into a barn filled with grain. I’m not used to rye so this is quite the departure – there is none of that coffee toffee  I get from whiskey. Digestive biscuit, warm milk and Weetabix, and a real agrarian vibe – reminds me of the waft of brewing you sometimes get from Midleton distillery. On the palate this is feisty, a lot of eye-watering white heat. Maybe that drop of water is required after all. Nah, fuck it. The heat makes way for a strong-yet-soft perfume note – it reminds me of brandy, soft fruit making way for festive spices. It’s hard to know with releases like this whether they are meant to be a taste of some potentially wonderful future, or just an economic necessity – whiskey is such a long game that few can afford to sit and wait a decade for their entry-level ten year old. I love the financial madness of setting up a whiskey distillery – all that risk for one crazy dream. It feels dickish to then insult the initial outputs from any new distiller – I have kids, and I know you don’t expect much from a three year old. They have big personalities, and a lot of rough edges, but give them another seven years and they are a different species. So this is bold, and a little loud, but the potential is there, and six years from now doesn’t seem that far away anymore.

The Accidental Careerist

The view from my office.

I was in a taxi on my way to the TV3 studios. It was 5am on a cold November morning in 2014, and I was about to appear on the channel’s breakfast TV show, Ireland AM. The driver and I were laughing about the fact that I was about to go on live television to discuss getting a vasectomy, and how completely ridiculous it was. As we neared the industrial estate in Walkinstown where TV3 have their studios, he offered his final thought on vasectomies; a friend of his got one a few years before, and when word got out, all the women in the office were after him. That said, he added, his friend worked in the public sector, and sher ‘they’re all at it in there’. “Must be the boredom,” he concluded.

It’s a fairly common trope – that there is some sort of dolce vita to be had in the public sector, where they laze about all day enjoying bacchanalian orgies to kill some time until their enormous pensions kick in. I never really thought about the taxi driver’s comments until 12 months later, when I found myself working in the public sector, specifically in a very large, very busy hospital. My work in both the emergency department and the outpatients department was a pedal to the metal, full throttle affair. After three years working in the Irish health service, I can say this with absolute certainty – if there is an easy job to be found anywhere in the public sector, it definitely isn’t in the HSE.

I would advocate anyone to consider a career in the public sector – you work hard, and if you come in at the bottom level of the lowest grade, your pay is a not-too-impressive 21.5kPA. But it goes up in annual increments, as it does across all grades, and you have a stability and security that you will rarely find in any job. In my previous work with the newspaper, I was lacking much of what I found in the HSE – security, meaning, and an opportunity to progress. And lo, progress is exactly what I did this year, and I am now a B2B communications professional. Outta my goddam way, world.

Of course, whiskey was central to all this – it was writing about whiskey that landed me all the freelance work I currently do, which in turn enabled me to go into an interview and tell them I write a weekly column for one of the biggest papers in the country. So my career is starting to look a little bit more like a career, thanks to booze. I’m also pleased to announce that despite repeatedly telling the world that I know absolutely nothing about whiskey, I have done some brand consultancy work for the distilling industry, and have even enjoyed the piquant irony of signing a non-disclosure agreement, which I believe legally allows me to falsely claim that I own a distillery.

Aside from all this humblebragging, I also did some market research for an unnamed drinks firm, and for my troubles, I got a bottle of Redbreast 21. So good luck guessing what drinks firm it was.

Redbreast 21 features regularly on this blog as being one of the greats of Irish whiskey. Yes it’s expensive, but now that I have a big fancy office with my name on the door and some obvious delusions of grandeur, I believe that I am worth it. So to mark one month in the job, I cracked open the Redbreast 21 and toasted my good fortune. It was great to go back to this whiskey after not having it over the last few lean years, and to remind myself how good it is. On the nose there are lots of raisins, madeira cake, that creamy bite of rich tomato soup, molasses, cappuccino. Some real savoury notes – Oxo cubes, caramelized onions, passata, hoisin sauce. Lots to work through in this russet-gold liquid. I would absolutely kill this in a cask-strength version.

It has that smooth, oiled glide across the palate, opening up to reveal bergamot, dark chocolate, winter fruits – my usual suspects, pear drops, Tia Maria, glögi, white Russians, those are all alcoholic beverages so it seems like cheating to compare this to them but you get the idea – creamy alcohol and lots of flavour. Leather and tobacco, salted caramel, pineapple chunks, buttery apple crumble, and once again I am going to say creme brulee as I appear to taste that in every drink ever. It’s the snap, crackle and pop of pot still style that this has – it’s oily, mouth-coating properties dissolve in the face of a wave of tingling dryness.

As for the finish: It’s like those old videos of the Trinity nuclear test – one massive mushroom cloud, then waves of oomph. I love Redbreast 21, and spend a lot of time on this blog eulogising it, with good cause. It rolls – with dried fruit, peanut butter, figs, plums, honey, and some of that bergamot from the nose. Beautiful.

It seems odd to me that such a great whiskey has only been on the shelves for five years now. Flashback:

Billy Leighton, master blender at Midleton Distillery, said the process of launching Redbreast 21 Year Old took three years, as finding the right aged casks for blending was challenging.

“We’ve done a lot of work on Redbreast 21 Year Old. We decided in 2010 we wanted to extend the Redbreast family and it just had to be an age to continue the Redbreast style – we’ve always been an age statement brand. Luckily my predecessors had the foresight to squirrel away a few casks but it wasn’t what I thought we could call Redbreast. But as more stock became available over the past year to use in a 21-year-old blend, we managed to put the expression together”.

“Once my team and I tasted the 21 Year Old whiskey, there was never any question about whether we should release a younger expression – the older whiskey showed such stunning levels of depth, flavour and taste, we just had to bring it out for the growing army of Redbreast and single pot still Irish whiskey fans around the world.”

I know a lot of folks who say the 15 is better value – and, to be fair, they are probably right, given that is it under a hundred euro – but the 21 is opulence itself, that silken Redbreast profile taken to the nth degree, smooth, delectable whiskey that, in a category that is pushing up prices, is actually worth the price. That said, do bear in mind that I didn’t pay for the bottle I reviewed here, and am basically now an official organ of the industry since I have done paid work for them. So I’m even less trustworthy than your average bribe unit. But you’re just going to have to trust me when I say that, to me, this is one of the greats – in fact, release this in a cask-strength version and you would easily have the match of the Dream Cask.

Redbreast Family

So what now for Redbreast? It is the ideal next step for anyone looking to explore the wide, wide world of Irish whiskey. It is a straightforward proposition – a core range that work like a ladder, 12, 12CS, 15, 21. The Spot whiskeys are too few, the Powers too many, Method & Madness too esoteric. If I was looking to show someone what Irish whiskey can be, it would be Redbreast. I still think a world-beating single malt would be a great boon, but until then it helps to have a uniquely Irish whiskey style that also happens to simply be a great whiskey. Of course, all this is just the idle speculation of someone who really doesn’t know anything about whiskey – a position that I sometimes think is a boon; no obsessing about history, or legacy,  just the cold eye of an average consumer. I revel in my own ignorance. A few years back, I would have killed for a job in the whiskey business, until I realised in more recent times that whiskey is my Narnia. If I took a job there, the joy would go out of it pretty fast. What I have found is balance – a day job that is challenging and rewarding, a second job where I get paid to write whatever I want, and a hobby that brings me joy and the odd bottle of free booze. It doesn’t get better than that really.

Arise

The Giant’s Grave near Clonmult. 

In the hills outside of Midleton lies the village of Clonmult. It is one of those blink-and-you-miss it places that is hard to find when you look for it, and passes by almost unnoticed when you drive through it. There isn’t a huge amount of things to see up there – the site of one of the worst massacres of the War Of Independence, the three spindly streams that unite to form the Roxboro (better known as the Dungourney river), the holy wells of Knockaneo and Garrylaurence, the parental purgatory of Leahy’s Open Farm, and, if you know where to look, a megalithic tomb known as the Giant’s Grave.

It’s not an especially well-flagged place; of the few scraps of information about it online, there is this, which gives a sense of the wreckage – the tomb and its surrounds look like it has been looted. But if you were planning on looting a site buried deep in the woods of Dungourney and Clonmult, a half mile from the Giant’s Grave lies a bone fide golden hoard, albeit a liquid one.

The Giant’s Grave on top right, and Irish Distillers Limited’s massive Dungourney warehouse complex on bottom right.

The Dungourney maturation site, which is to be expanded.  

Irish Distillers have a sizeable warehouse complex embedded in the woods, and are going to be building more over the coming years, because, in case you hadn’t heard, Irish whiskey is booming. Specifically, Irish Distillers Ltd whiskey is booming, a point made clear in this piece. Jameson is the re-animator of the entire category, but as that article asks, what happens now – how do you take Jameson’s success and expand it across the entire sector?

My take on the boom is the same as when I wrote this – let Jameson lay down the heavy artillery as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-chaser go-to whiskey of average josephine sixpack. Then you push through with the ground troops, winning hearts and minds using our single malts, single pot stills and the premium whiskeys of Ireland. This is happening already – as noted in the Irish Times, sales of premium whiskey brands like MVR and Redbreast jumped 40% last year. But this isn’t all about the US – sales of Irish whiskey are also rising in the domestic market, outpacing scotch, something that could be seen as a sign of a growing consumer awareness of the category.

The boom, as they say, is getting boomier, which might explain why Irish Distillers Limited are planning another distillery – or are they? The Indo said they were, citing Youghal as a possible site. Then IDL CEO Conor McQuaid went on radio the next morning to discuss their booming profits and when asked about the Indo piece, poured cold water on the notion that they were going to build another distillery. Then an updated press release came out that afternoon which basically confirmed that they were looking at exactly that, stating: At Irish Distillers, our objective is to drive the growth of our portfolio of premium Irish whiskey brands supported by the strength of the Pernod Ricard global distribution network. We take a long term view and naturally, as we grow, there are implications for our business. We are currently examining all options to increase our production capacity to meet projected demand and building a new distillery is one of them. These are exciting times for Irish whiskey and we are proud to be leading the way.

Midleton is not at capacity – yet. Give it five to ten years, however, and that will change. IDL, like any distiller big or small, need to plan decades ahead. If sales keep rocketing, they need to be able to guarantee supply. Supply is the same reason they bought 8 Degrees craft brewery, to ensure casks for the runaway success that is Caskmates.

What this planned distillery could signal is the start of a Chivas Brothers-style model for Irish Distillers Limited – distilleries operating across multiple sites creating key elements for blends like Powers, Jameson, and Sazerac’s Paddy. For any firm the size of IDL, you simply cannot put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s also worth noting that any distillery of decent size is about more than just stills, grain silos and warehousing, so the space they appear to have in Midleton may be needed for something other than the front end of production; have a gander at this device, which closed the main street of Midleton when it was being delivered:

It is an evaporator, which takes liquid waste such as pot ale and turns it into dark grains (animal feed) – because a beast like Midleton Distillery needs to manage waste as well as crafting wonderful booze. So it’s not all hewn stone and copper pots.

IDL have acres of storage space in Dungourney, but they will need more liquid. Midleton has the Barry Crockett Stillhouse, the Garden Stillhouse with its six stills, the micro-distillery and the biggest, baddest column still you are every likely to see, but with sales going the way they are, this new distillery, expected to be up and running by 2025, will be vital. Where it will be built is the next piece of the puzzle.

Two years ago IDL bought a farm next door which is part zoned for industrial, but I would imagine that after the floods in Midleton three years ago, and summer 2018 which saw almost no rainfall, they are thinking about how our climate is changing. In the decades to come, IDL will need a reliable, sizeable water source – one that doesn’t either flood the site or run dry. Little wonder that Youghal became part of the speculation, with excellent roads, oodles of space, a region that is crying out for a investment, and the monster that is the Blackwater. While it may flood lowland towns upriver, if that river ever runs dry, we will all be dead too long to give a shit about it.

In the meantime, Irish whiskey is becoming more diverse – Slane started production, Teelings auctioned their first in-house three-year-old pot still whiskey for more ten grand, and the tide is rising and lifting all boats. The challenge for many brands-turned-distillers will be moving from sourced stock to their own, and this is particularly true for the Jameson-in-waiting, Tullamore DEW. They are second biggest in the market, and will have to nail the transition. Consider that they currently have three disparate elements in their ubiquitous blend – malt (presumably Bushmills), grain (presumably Midleton) and pot still whiskey (obviously Midleton). So they need to replicate those three liquids perfectly in their new 35 million distillery in Tullamore, along with making standalone expressions.

I’m no scientist, but I would suggest that if the chaps at Wm Grant & Sons wanted to perfectly replicate Bushmills malt and Midleton pot whiskey, they could do it with relative ease. Science means that a modern master distiller or blender may talk about the romance and poetry of whiskey, but behind closed doors they are brilliant chemists who can perfectly recreate a whiskey if they need to.

Date Captured: 03/07/2014 Pictured here is the newly installed Tullamore Distillery Spirit Safe. Also in the background are two of Tullamore Distillery’s copper stills.

So I’m going to assume that Wm Grant & Sons have a healthy supply contract with Midleton and Bushmills, but if sales keep going at the rate they are, everyone is going to be watching those corners – whiskey is not going to be something you will want to share. Their own plans for Tullamore were thus:

Located on a 58-acre site in Clonminch on the outskirts of the Co Offaly town, the distillery draws on spring water from the nearby Slieve Bloom mountains, and will be capable of producing the equivalent of 1.5 million cases of Tullamore Dew annually, when fully operational.

The move brings whiskey production back to Tullamore for the first time since the original distillery closed in 1954.

The new plant contains four hand-crafted copper stills, designed to resemble the original stills from the old Tullamore distillery, six brew house fermenters each with a 34,000 litre capacity and warehouse storage for 100,000 casks.

So Tullamore is back on the distilling map, but their own stocks are only just hitting maturity so I would imagine that like Walsh Distillery et al, the supply contract will keep going for another few years.

On that note, here comes this 18 year old single malt, which is triple distilled. In the olden times I used to believe double-distilled meant Cooley, triple meant Bushmills. Then I read this post by Whiskey Nut in which former Bushmills master distiller Darryl McNally reveals that Bushmills did, in fact, double distil, and that this double distilled stock was offloaded and makes up the bulk of what the Teeling boys are selling. This is part of the Bushmills conundrum; why was this excellent stock sold in the first place? Bushmills is obviously the source of massive amounts of sourced whiskey, but it seems odd that one of Ireland’s great distilleries has become our MGP, rather than our Macallan.

This 18 year old Bushmills single malt is triple distilled and finished for ten months in a quartet of casks – bourbon, sherry, madeira and port. Bottled at 41.3%ABV, this is limited to 2,500 bottles, and is a reasonable 80 euro on the Whisky Exchange. I’m growing used to seeing Irish whiskeys over 15 year being around the 100 mark, so this makes a pleasant change. That said, I paid fuck all for it, as it was a gift from John Quinn, Tully ambassador extraordinaire, whose signature the bottle bears. To the tasting notes:

The colour is that amazing rose gold you get from port finishes – like bloody brass. On the nose there is rich cherry, vanilla butterscotch, while there are also fresher elements, pine needles, lime, and, oddly enough, a mouthwatering scent of meaty jus. On the palate – that extra percent in the strength is felt, then there are dried apricots and goji berries, a little cola bottle fizzle. Butterscotch nose makes way for fudge, tiramisu, and a gentle peppery finish. I like this – it’s a reasonably priced, interesting whiskey, and one that is finite. Cask finishes are too often seen as a variation on the expression that ‘you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter’, but this is a decent single malt with a stylish little kick, not an upcycled hot mess.

Now, take my hand and let us travel back in time to 2005:

Pernod Ricard took many people by surprise when it announced on Monday that it had agreed to sell its Bushmills Irish whiskey brand to arch rival Diageo.

The French group’s decision to sell its Number Two Irish whiskey to a company with the marketing might to make Bushmills a serious challenger to Pernod’s top brand, Jameson, might seem at first sight a strange one.

But viewed as part of a wider picture, it makes more sense.

The prize for Pernod was to take Diageo out of the running in the race for control of Allied Domecq. The price to be paid was Bushmills, which has long played second fiddle in the Pernod portfolio to Jameson.

The €295 million (£200 million) price tag attaching to the Co Antrim-based distillery confirmed for some that there were other factors at play in this deal, which is conditional upon Pernod securing control of Allied Domecq.

While the price represents 14 times Bushmills’ €21 million contribution to Pernod’s coffers last year, one industry source noted that LVMH paid a broadly similar multiple for Glenmorangie, a less prestigious brand, last autumn.

That is just a sample, but that article is worth a read in its entirety to get a sense of just how far we have come in 13 years – a period of time which, in whiskey terms, is not all that long.

The initial reason for the sale of Bushmills was to break IDL’s monopoly on the market – something that we have no fear of now, with distilleries of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere. So here’s my pitch – instead of building another distillery, why don’t IDL buy back Bushmills? Granted, a new distillery would only cost a few million, and Bushmills could be 400m plus, but it’s clear already that the new owners are struggling to figure out what makes the place tick. Those massive warehouses in Antrim are absolutely packed with stellar single malts – something the IDL portfolio is sadly lacking. Now is the time for an operator with deep understanding of how to run a distillery, and a passion for Irish whiskey, to take the reins and make Bushmills great again. It is long-past time for the giant of Antrim to rise and make the ground shake.

Only forward

Group of people outide William ‘Lairdie’ Finlayson’s house in Cromarty. Image via An Bhaile.

In the autumn of 2012, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away, and with him went a little piece of Scottish culture. Hogg was the last native speaker of a Scots dialect spoken by the fisherfolk of the isolated Cromarty community, the only other native speaker having been his brother, Gordon, who had passed away a year previous. Fortunately,  researcher Janine Donald of online cultural archive Am Baile recorded the two brothers chatting in the language and used the sessions to compile a dictionary of their phrases and fables. You can read the booklet here, while the site also has transcripts of recordings of the brothers speaking in the dialect. You can hear two of the Hogg family singing a traditional song here. The dialect is believed to have been handed down from Norse and Dutch fishermen who settled in the area in the 16th century, and while elements of the language remain in the everyday speech used in Cromarty, the passing of the Hogg brothers saw the end of the language being used in its natural, organic state. Here are a few samples:

Ah ken the cutyach ye belang taeI – I know where you’re from (derogatory)

At a grandeur! – What a show off!

At now kucka? – A friendly greeting

Blussing o tattas – A large amount of potatoes

Boors n boors – Lots and lots

E rose from his mate lik a potye – He got up from his meal like a pig

Ee’s a boshach-skeyter – Contemptuous expression for a miserable, mishapen creature

E’s as prood as Bubba – He’s as proud as the devil

Gaen clean tae the tootrach – Away with the fairies, or having become disreputable through drink

Holl toll – Very drunk

Whelp o’ darkness – An individual who was prone to anti-social behaviour

Part of the reason the dialect survived as long as it did is because of where the tiny village of Cromarty is located – perched on the northern tip of the Black Isle in the Highlands, with little of note about it apart from the dialect and the fact they owned Britain’s smallest vehicle ferry, the Cromarty Rose, which ran across the forth to Nigg.

However, the community isn’t quite as isolated as you would think, as the Black Isle isn’t actually an island. One of the peculiarities of Scots gaelic is that there is no differentiation between peninsula and island; perhaps they just got tired of keeping track of which is which – after all, they do have 790 actual islands and a coastline that looks like shattered glass. Perhaps they just felt that The Black Peninsula sounded less dramatic.

The Black Isle also happens to be home to Glen Ord, a Diageo distillery that makes malt for the Johnnie Walker and Singleton brands. Frankly, looking at a map you would struggle to say the distillery is actually on the Black Isle, given that it is at the absolute opposite end from Cromarty, but as it sits in the Muir Of Ord, it can thus can make the claim.

The older I get, the more I like the whiskey’s temporal dimension – beyond the core ingredients of barley, teast, and water, or even transformative elements like copper and wood, it is time that ultimately defines whiskey. Ingredients and vessels give it nature, but is time that nurtures it. It rolls of the stills as new make spirit, with a unique personality of its own, but it is nothing until you add three years in a cask. Add more years and its value increases. Time stops when you rip it from the cask and put it in a bottle, placed into cryosleep, only to finally fulfil its destiny once you pour it into a glass and consume it. I am at the upper limit for aged whiskey – 43 – I am finally starting to understand just how finite my time is. The end of the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect is a reminder that time devours everything, no matter how we fight it.  

Cadenhead are the oldest independent bottler in Scotland. They have a lovely website where you can read their storied history, find out what they do, and ultimately not purchase anything, as they don’t do online shopping. Even when you go into their Edinburgh store, your purchases are worked out with a pen, paper and a calculator. If they could fit an abacus on the desk, they probably would. For a store that deals in capsules filled with time, they are adamant that they won’t march to its merciless beat.

I bought a ten-year-old Glen Ord, a Kilkerran 12, an unnamed Islay eight-year-old and a Teaninch. The Ord came on the recommendation of staff, who pushed it over another, older bottling from the same distillery. So what of this entry-level whiskey from the last distillery standing on the Black Isle: On the nose it is waxy, with green apple, a pleasing whiff of gasoline, pepper, but with sweetness, spun sugar, wine gums, brown sugar cubes. On the palate there is that waxy feel, with a little aniseed, and a fresh zesty element that sizzles on the tongue. It’s smooth, with the right depth for a whisky this age, but just lacks that little something odd that I was hoping for. The finish doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves traces of pear drops and marmalade. Overall a solid purchase, and a handy reminder that one day we will all be dead, but then I would say that as I am a whelp o’ darkness.

Requiem For A Dream

32-year-old Redbreast Dream Cask, with the land that produced it in the background. Up Cork.

Between 1924 and 1932, a series of studies were carried out in Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory outside Chicago. The aim was to test if workers were more productive in brighter or dimmer lighting. Over the course of the study, a pattern emerged. When the lights were raised, the workers were more productive than they were previously. The lights dimmed, and the workers were also more productive than they were previously. In fact, the only time the work rate slumped back to its average was when the workers were not being studied. Soon it became apparent that the light levels had little to do with the results, and what was motivating the workers was the fact that they were the subjects of a study. This became known as The Hawthorne Effect, or the observer effect – whereby the act of study changes elements of what is being studied.

I find it hard to understand how the more productive bloggers manage to rattle out reviews at the pace they do, or how they maintain their enthusiasm. Images of bloggers’ sample hordes just make me sad – dozens or hundreds of miniature bottles just sitting there undrunk, because once your blog starts getting traffic, you will never keep up with the influx. Obviously, I am mercifully unburdened of traffic, so mine is an open road, bar the odd sample from the neighbours at IDL, such as this:

There are two schools of thought on tasting notes – one, you taste a whiskey, and then you tell people what it tasted like in the plainest possible terms. Or two, you use the opportunity to get creative. I quite like the latter – I love the SMSW tasting notes as they are generally batshit – wild, freewheeling notes that pull you into times and places you will never be, sensations you will never have.  I love the more esoteric notes, which go beyond simple descriptives and instead operate more like poetry, giving you an oblong view of the whiskey, a code to be broken, a riddle to be solved. Because while I would always say in public that, hey, it’s just a drink, in my head I always know that it’s more.

A whiskey is about time, place and memory – it’s great if you think it tastes like custard, but I’d be more engaged if you told me it reminds you of the desserts of stewed apple and rubbery custard your nan gave you, because it evokes memories unique to you. It’s that little reveal that I like, clearly because I am a nosey shit, but also because, while there may be some objective tasting notes that the majority of people could agree on, it’s the uniqueness of an individual’s notes that are most interesting. So fuck objectivity.

Blair Bowman was a student at Aberdeen University when he happened to be in Barcelona for World Gin Day. As a whisky lover – Bowman was the founder of the Aberdeen University Malt Whisky Society – he decided to find out when World Whisky Day was. There wasn’t one, so he decided there should be. Fast forward three years and Bowman sells the World Whisky Day concept for an alleged six-figure sum. He is still involved, and it goes from strength to strength, with Irish whiskey makers getting over the spelling of it to join in the (promotional) fun.

To mark World Whisky Day 2018, IDL released a 32 year old Redbreast in a 50cl, €500 bottling. All 816 bottles sold out in hours. It seemed fast – even though there 2,000 of the Mano A Lamh bottles back in 2015, the customer quotas of two per buyer meant that despite being an incredibly reasonable €65, it didn’t sell out for weeks. But Mano wasn’t that old, nor exclusive, nor did it come at a time when the Irish economy is picking up almost at the same speed as the global interest in Irish whiskey. But still – the Dream Cask sold out in hours. It wasn’t long before it became clear why.

Whiskey is many things – delightful beverage, social lubricant, chrism of the soul – but it also happens to be a relatively solid investment. The Dream Cask was an old whiskey, with an age statement, in a uniquely Irish style (single pot still), that was limited to less than 1,000 bottles. The flippers – those who buy bottles purely to sell again at a profit – were always going to swarm around an item like this. However, what must have sent them into a feeding frenzy was the realisation that, thanks to a glitch in the IDL website, customer quotas were not applied. The results were spectacular:

Now, this isn’t to suggest that all 800 bottles were sold in lots of 17 to flippers; after all, how many people would have had eight and a half grand laying about? But if you were one of those who had €500 or a grand to buy one or two, and discovered they sold out, partly thanks to some folks buying dozens, then you would be pretty unamused. Also, while harcore whiskey nerds might do bottle shares or sell you one for cost, the flippers are simply going to flip. And, as John Egan pointed out, having so many bottles in the hands of the flippers skews the value – they will be in it for a decent price, not to simply hook another whiskey pal up. They are like ticket touts, forcing the ordinary fan to fork out above normal prices for access to an exclusive event – the tasting of a very old Redbreast whiskey.

So was the Dream Cask worth €500 for 50cl?  Before I get to that, here are some of the finer points:

Billy Leighton at work, but what the fuck is going on in the bottom left of this pic?

Redbreast Dream Cask is a limited edition, 32 Year Old single pot still Irish whiskey – a single cask that was hand-selected last year by Master Blender, Billy Leighton, as his favourite Redbreast whiskey. The cask was chosen for having the perfect balance of pot still, Spanish oak and sherry flavours, which can usually only be achieved through blending – bringing to life Redbreast’s signature sherry style.

The whiskey was originally unveiled during a Facebook LIVE tasting to mark Redbreast’s World Whisky Day 2017 celebrations. Participants and viewers praised the quality and rarity of what is now the oldest Redbreast Irish whiskey ever to go on sale, with many requesting that the whiskey be made available to buy.

Redbreast Master Blender, Billy Leighton, commented: “In almost 40 years as a blender, Redbreast Dream Cask is a real highlight as I am able to select my own, personal dream Irish whiskey and share it with the world. Our inaugural tasting in 2017 was by far the largest whiskey tasting I have ever held, and the feedback we have received from the whiskey community on the liquid has been phenomenal, so it’s an honour to see it bottled to mark World Whisky Day 2018 – and watch this space for our 2019 plans.”

The Redbreast Dream Cask represents the perfect contribution of flavours through a careful maturation journey rounded out by a particularly sublime sherry butt. The original date of bonding goes back to 31st October 1985, with single pot still Irish whiskey filled into re-fill American Oak ex-Bourbon barrels. Then, on 8th March 2011, the whiskey was re-casked into a first-fill Oloroso Sherry-seasoned butt. The resulting whiskey is luxuriously smooth with wood resin notes reminiscent of well-polished antique furniture, lots of ripe fresh fruit flavours and an extremely balanced finish that slowly fades.

Redbreast Dream Cask is bottled without the use of chill-filtration at 46.5% ABV and is available in very limited quantities through Redbreast’s online private members’ club, The Birdhouse, for €500 per 50cl bottle.

Back to my musings:

Nose: The old classic quote about Redbreast returns – this is Christmas cake in a glass, but with Christmas pudding, brandy butter and some sherry trifle in there for good measure. Absolute decadence. I’ve had some heavily sherried whiskeys recently that just over-egged that cake – too sweet, too paxarette-esque – but this is just that rich, balanced sherry note that you want in a whiskey, where it never obliterates the fact that this is whiskey, not an actual sherry. Honeycomb, cappuccino, a little roasted tomato and Ballymaloe relish, that slightly tart acidity tingling the sinus. It’s the power of the scent here – not overpowering, just deep. This is what I wanted from the Bow Street Jameson 18 and the 2018 Midleton Very Rare – a nose that was a prelude to something.

Palate: All those stewed fruits from that festive dessert trolley, jam sponge, sherry, glacé cherries. Christmas pudding scorched with burning whiskey. There is a dryness here that I wasn’t expecting – but that tartness on the nose gives way to a tongue-smacking, mouth-coating, oily liquid. This whiskey reminds me of the cask we opened when I did the Irish Whiskey Academy back in 2014 – at the time I remember it was so good my ears popped. Just that wallop of flavours, and you find yourself smacking your lips for some time after. Spices, tobacco – the usual suspect, and more.

Finish: On and on and on – a mouthful of slowly dissolving hopjes, ripe banana, figs, the tail end of a Fisherman’s Friend, Lyons’s Black Treacle, peanut brittle. By now you have probably guessed that I have a sweet tooth, but there is a lot more in this whiskey – the TCP mouthwash dryness and the tart, bitter fruits built into the back end mean this is more than a shortcut to sensory diabetes. I could easily match this with some pitch dark chocolate or some patient zero level blue cheese – it operates on multiple levels.

Overall: So was it worth €500? If you bought one, then yes it was. But if you didn’t get one, and tried to, your yearning for it is probably more to do with the human condition than the actual liquid. We always want what we can’t have, and that longing gets worse the more elusive the item becomes. That said, I am one of the assholes who bought four Mano A Lamhs.

If you didn’t get a bottle of the Dream Cask, and are disgusted with how it played out, it’s worth pointing out that it is highly likely that World Whisky Day 2019 will probably see another release very much like this. This event was a first for IDL, so I’d give them a pass on the customer quota SNAFU and also on the poor packaging, as some purchasers found their tumblers smashed when they opened the box (replacements were sent). At least we can console ourselves with the mental image of the flippers opening box after box, filled with broken glass, slicing their greedy little hands open. 

The Dream Cask is an incredible whiskey, but €500 for 50ml, not at cask strength, is a lot. Maybe you earn €60k+ and have no kids. Then for you it is well worth it. Even if you earn less than that and this is a real luxurious treat for yourself, then go on, spoil yourself, you’re worth it. But for me, almost no whiskey is worth more than €200. I know there are conditions that affect price, like rarity and demand, but as I said before, it is still just a drink (and also so much more).

Whiskey is about moments –  I drank this sitting at a computer in my kitchen. If I had been at a whiskey festival, sharing it with friends, I would probably feel it was well worth the money. But this is part of the observer effect – I am studying this whiskey, rather than just enjoying it for what it is, and that changes the results. But I’m privileged to have tried it, especially in a generous 10cl sample, that came with a tumbler, pen, lapel pin, and coaster. If I had any sense I would have kept it closed and stuck the lot on eBay for €200. Je ne regrette rien.  

The Moebius

Shift work is inhuman. There is something utterly unnatural about being awake all night. There are some who thrive on shift work, but they are a minority – most of us do it for the money, or because it suits our homelife, but very few do it because they like it. I only did nine months shift work in my life and I nearly lost my mind. Part of it was my age – I was in my forties and had four small kids, so the combination of little sleep by day and a shift pattern that was all over the place, meant I had to get out. I can still remember the odd feeling of being at my desk in the wee hours. You’d look at the clock – it’s 3.15am. You’d look at it an hour later – it’s 3.25am. Time becomes a pliable entity as your exhausted mind starts to play games with you – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop. Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was still awake, and would forget entire conversations, or imagine they were dreams. But at least I wasn’t alone in there – in an emergency department, you are never alone.

I like the idea of distilleries that can practically run themselves. Many of the modern ones do – as one distiller pointed out to me, machines make the best whiskey, and humans are really surplus to requirements for modern operations like Dalmunach. But there are older distilleries that spearheaded this drive to remove the human element from distilling.  Sat on the slopes of the Ben Rinnes range, the wonderfully named Allt-A-Bhainne was built by Seagrams in 1975 to create malt for blends, primarily for Chivas Regal, but it does appear in indie bottlings from time to time.

I was in a mini-bus with a group of German whisky retailers as we tooled past the strangely modernist building. They, being massive whisky nerds, asked the driver to turn around so we could go back and have a look around. And so we did.

 

The distillery is quite modern in comparison to some of the chocolate-box scenes at places like Strathisla. Allt-A-Bhainne has no warehouses, and it rattles out 4.5 million litres of spirit per year. Water comes from the Ben Rinnes, and the distillery’s name translates from Gaelic as Burn Of Milk. While bhainne has the same meaning in both Irish and Scots, the way we would pronounce the name of this distillery is different – ollt-err-vane seems to be the common way over there, while we would go with alt-a-vonya.

The similarities between the languages were the sole reason I bought this bottling of Allt-A-Bhainne a year or two ago, but I felt more inclined to open it after being to the distillery. It was a curious place – nobody was around, and those vents are like something from an old sci-fi B-movie, when set and prop designers thought that angular aluminium would be all we would ever need in the future.

So Allt-A-Bhainne has an ancient name, retro-futuristic design and one poor operator stuck on shift in that one big room where everything happens. My bottle came from Douglas Laing’s excellent Provenance range. Distilled in 2008 and aged in refill hogshead, this was bottled in 2015 at 46% and is non-chill filtered. No pressure in reviewing this one, as it was cheap as chips – 40 euro from Master Of Malt. 

Nose: Sulphur. Sulphur to the point that I actually thought it might be the glass (it wasn’t). It has all those ester notes – nail polish remover, must, bananas, white pepper, an astringent blue cheese note that isn’t entirely unpleasant. Like Sex Panther, it stings the nostrils – although not in a good way.

Palate: After the general brimstone of the nose I was ready for something unpleasant, but this is pretty uneventful. I can see how this would provide balance in a blend, but something tells me I would prefer to be drinking its counterpoint rather than this. There’s a little caramel, a little bit of the aspartame sweetness of a Creme Egg, and a lot of fuck-all.

Finish: Mercifully brief.

I seem to live my dramming life in a state of almost constant disappointment. So many whiskeys I have tried recently have just let me down – but at least this one was a cheap punt and worth a shot. It’s hard to know why this bottling isn’t as impressive as I had hoped – maybe I should just spend another ten or twenty euro and get something with more weight.

I loved A’Bunadh – now completely out of my price range – and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, so perhaps I do just need something bolder than this also-ran. I was keen to try it due to its odd name, interesting design and the fact that the distillery has no bottlings of its own, only under indie labels. Now I can see why. I’m not angry, just disappointed, which is why I am washing away the taste with a drop of the sourced seven-year-old single malt bottled by the recently completed Boann distillery. Bourbon aged, sherry finished, this is nothing new, or shocking, or weird, but is just a nice whiskey. I also love the sourced seven from Glendalough. I assume both seven year olds come from the same source (Bushmills?), as they both have a similar citrus note, although it’s worth remembering that this is coming from someone who had operations on his sinuses as a kid and thus has the olfactory capacity of Selma Bouvier. 

The Whistler Blue Note – for that is what Boann are calling this – is rich and creamy, lots of coffee, toffee, hints of aniseed, that citrus, a little Oxo cube on the nose, and a lot of smooth warmth, as opposed to the ugly heat from the Allt-A-Bhainne. It’s a reminder that while we don’t have the variety of distilleries here, and all our older stock comes from three places, at least those three places generally made – and make – great whiskey. That said, I do look forward to a dystopian day down the road when we have our own version of Allt-A-Bhainne – an odd, lonely distillery that produces odd spirit that exists purely to make other elements in a blend look better. 

Bowing out

The new Jameson Bow Street 18-Year-Old sits atop Krass Clement’s Dublin.

I loved Dublin. It’s the city of my birth, where my wife and I fell in love, and where we became parents. I spent four great years there from 1999-2003 and it broke my heart to leave. But I had to face the fact that I am a culchie. Like the salmon swimming back upstream to spawn, once we had a child, we wanted to get home. If I had stayed I could have had a better stab at a career, given that 90% of the national media is based there, but we took our chances and headed south.

In the first few years after the move we went back to Dublin five or six times a year. Now we rarely go back, and when we do we see more and more decay, more addiction, more poverty, more problems. You can say it’s because life in the country has made me soft, that I’m just a nervous bogger, or you can look at the bodies in doorways, the child beggars, the aggressive junkies, the alleys you walk past and see, out of the corner of your eye, a heroin addict with his trousers down, injecting into his inner thigh. Watching the Dublin edition of The Layover last week reminded me of all that I loved about Dublin, but what I see when I go back is a world away from Bourdain’s frenetic, joyous journey through the city and more like Johnny’s nocturnal odyssey through London in Mike Leigh’s Naked. This ailing city was never somewhere I could call home.

My house now overlooks Midleton distillery. It’s the first thing I see when I get up in the morning, and the vapours from the chimney are a good indication of how the weather is outside. There are warehouses around the distillery itself, and more warehousing out past my house in the woods of Dungourney, not far from where the whiskey river rises. At least once a day, either on the way to or from work, I will meet a grain truck, a lorry loaded with casks, or a spirit tanker on the roads, because Midleton distillery is a whiskey super producer. Just as well, as the demand for what they make is rocketing. I’ve no doubt that Midleton, Bushmills, Cooley, West Cork and Dingle could probably sell every single drop in their warehouses right now, but that isn’t going to happen as this is a long game. Besides, it’s Jameson that the world is screaming for, and Midleton is the Klondike of this liquid gold rush. John Teeling’s recent warnings of a whiskey shortage made for a great headline, but when someone who is making and selling whiskey to third parties is telling you that there is a looming shortage – thus encouraging greater demand and prices – you need to engage the critical faculties a little bit more. I’ve been hearing various reports about dwindling mature stocks for years, but it would appear that if you have a good working relationship with one of the big three, then you are good. I digress. 

It irks me that Jameson labels still bear the address of Bow Street, a location that may be home to their biggest tourist attraction, and is a very central to the history of the brand and Irish whiskey itself. But as I pointed out previously, Bow Street is a phantom limb – it has no real bearing on the production of Jameson today. Or, at least, that’s how it was.

The massive refurb of Bow Street by the team behind the Guinness Storehouse cost 11m and saw Bow Street take tours to the next level. However, one of the most interesting additions to the venue was an actual functioning warehouse space – the first in Dublin in decades. And so it was that IDL relaunched their 18-year-old premium blend as Jameson Bow Street 18-year-old – the first Jameson in decades that had the right to put Bow Street on the labels. And if this wasn’t enough, they have lodged plans for new labels for standard Jameson that remove Bow Street from the address.

As a proud Midletonian, this is great news. The question now is – will this matter to America? That is, after all, where it is all happening for Irish whiskey, with those insane growth figures being largely centred on the US and largely centred on Jameson sales therein. So how discerning those drinkers are remains to be seen – Jameson has triumphed as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-short everyman. Could a slight change to labels get people wondering that is going on? Or is it likely that the loss of the Bow Street address on the labels will make little difference, especially given that they will have Midleton distillery’s address on there? But the change on the standard Jameson labels certainly amplifies the Bow Street address on the 18 year old – it highlights that this is the first whiskey in decades to spend any time in Dublin at all (Teelings et al age their whiskey elsewhere).

Midleton distillery, as seen from my gaf.

So the Bow Street address is back, not just as a nod to history but as a live maturation site. As for the whiskey itself, here is a breakdown:

Jameson Irish whiskey, which is produced by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has today announced the launch of Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength; the first cask strength Jameson to be available globally, which finishes its maturation in Dublin’s only live Maturation House in the Jameson Distillery Bow Street. A reinterpretation of the revered Jameson 18 Years, the new expression celebrates Jameson’s Dublin heritage by returning part of the production process to the brand’s original home in Smithfield for the first time since 1975.

Distilled and matured at the Midleton Distillery, Co. Cork, Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength is the new head of the Jameson family. After spending 18 years in a collection of bourbon and sherry casks, the blend of pot still and grain Irish whiskeys has been married together and re-casked in first-fill ex-bourbon American oak barrels for a final six to 12 months in the Maturation House at the Jameson Distillery Bow Street.

‘Marrying’ is a traditional method of re-casking batches of vatted whiskey and re-warehousing it to ensure infusion before bottling. The first batch is presented at 55.3% ABV without the use of chill filtration and will be available in 20 markets from July 2018 at the RRP of €240.

Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Midleton Distillery, commented: “I’ve long had the unique luxury of being able to taste Jameson straight from the barrel at cask strength. With this first ever global launch of a cask strength Jameson, I’m thrilled that Irish whiskey fans around the world can now experience the full intensity of our whiskey or add a few drops of water to enjoy it at their own preferred strength.

“As a tribute to John Jameson’s distilling legacy in Smithfield, we’ve introduced some methods that would have been employed in days past. The final maturation period in Bow Street is our nod to the traditional “marrying” method. We’ve put our own Jameson stamp on it by using first-fill bourbon barrels, whereas the traditional approach would be to use casks multiple times. I like to think of the whiskey getting engaged in Midleton and then “married” in Dublin!”

Clearly, no one is going to think that the period spent in Dublin has anything to do with how it tastes. I have a shit Dub accent, but that’s because I spent four years living there and wanted desperately to fit in, before realising I preferred agricultural shows to teenage riots, wide open spaces to packed Luases, and the rolling hills of Midleton to the Liffey at low tide. Besides, it is unlikely that anyone would want to detect notes of Dublin city centre – packed DART on a rainy day, methdone on the top deck of the 29A, spicebags at dawn, sticky paving on Grafton Street in summer, and an urban sprawl that needs to appoint Ra’s Al Gul as Lord Mayor. When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart, but every time I go back I am more and more convinced that I did the right thing by leaving. My time spent there, much like the time the Bow Street 18 spent in the city, was an enjoyable interlude, but we are both from Cork, and better for it.

The big news item in the press release was not that this was the first cask-strength Jameson, nor was it the Bow Street maturation period, but rather the price. Jameson 18 used to be about €130, although when they cleared it out in Tesco a year or two ago before the relaunch, it went for €85. Salutations to anyone who got it then.

Obviously, this being cask strength makes it worth more – let’s say €180. The remaining €60 is presumably for those who like the Dublin finish, and also the premium packaging. The presentation is a lot more like its updated cousin, Midleton Very Rare, as these blurry photos show – basically, there is a lot more wood and copper than the old 18:

But wait – there’s more:

Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength is presented in a premium bottle design that truly reflects the quality and rarity of the liquid within. The bottle features 18 facets, one for each year of maturation, and the wooden presentation box celebrates the traditional pot stills used during the production process. In addition, a unique copper coin located underneath Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength bottles provides Jameson fans with access to an exclusive online portal where they can delve deeper into the story of the whiskey which bears the Bow Street name.

This, I presume, is aimed at the travel retail and tourist market. Nobody else really gives a fuck about portals, unless they lead to another realm populated with Lovecraftian abominations and free booze. It reminds me of Irish Distillers’ tourism project, The Cork Whiskey Way. It is/was a series of classic Cork pubs – and (ugh) SoHo – with four premium Midleton whiskeys in each of them, and the pubs were linked by QR codes. I can’t even remember how it was meant to work (here is an explanation), and doubt very much that it did, but this was four years ago when whiskey didn’t just sell itself and elaborate gimmicks were sometimes required. As an aside, if you want to do a trip around Cork that is whiskey based, Eric Ryan – a distiller, whiskey collector and history buff – does a brilliant whiskey walk around the important sites of Cork distilling. I did it last year and it is a great way to spend an afternoon, with great whiskeys, good food, interesting chat and a lot of craic.

Back to the Bow Street 18, and on to some typically incoherent tasting notes.

On the nose – expecting serious blowback from the strength, but this really is rather mellow. A lot of toasted pine nuts, vanilla, maybe a little smokey bacon lurking in there somewhere. I need to work on the nose with this one – nothing jumps out at me here, all very nuanced, very mellow. Not sure I enjoy that, as I’m really more of a sturm und drang kind of guy. Furniture polish, and, oh fuck it, the inside of a grand piano. Please, kill me now.

On the palate – it’s clobberin’ time. So bizarre having any Jameson at cask strength – if only Midleton Very Rare came in a CS edition. But in the meantime, this will do – smooth, with a wallop. Banana, those toffee notes I always look for, loads of vanilla, that slight acetone element carried over from the furniture polish detected on the nose. I like this. The finish is long and lingering, but that is the least you would expect from an 18 year old cask-strength whiskey. I should probably add some water, but life is short so you need to take large bites out of it. I’ll dilute when I’m dead.

From Brian Townsend's Lost Distilleries Of Ireland.From Brian Townsend's Lost Distilleries Of Ireland.

It comes down to this – is the Jameson Bow Street cask-strength whiskey worth €240? Yes and no. For whiskey nerds, I would tend towards a no. You could buy a Redbreast 21 and a Redbreast 12 for that money, or three Redbreast CSs, or a load of John’s Lanes, or any number of absolutely beautiful, diverse whiskeys from Midleton, because this isn’t just one distillery, it is really four distilleries that happen to be placed on one site. A Scottish friend was staying at my house some time back and when I pointed out the distillery to him, he said it was a pity it was so unsightly. I felt quite insulted. It’s as simple as this – without Midleton, Irish whiskey would be fucked. They consolidated the old firms and created a glistening machine that creates multiple expressions and helped keep a category alive. I bristled slightly when I heard him tell me that the distillery isn’t pretty enough – it was, for a long time, Irish whiskey’s last hope, a distilling Noah’s Ark, keeping the category going through those cruel years in the Seventies and Eighties when nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted anything to do with Irish whiskey. Midleton distillery may not have the aesthetics of a UNESCO world heritage site, but it is a working distillery, one that has been thumping out the whiskey for four decades and shows no sign of slowing.

The new Bow Street 18 has a little bit of added value in packaging and narrative, and would make an ideal gift for the returning tourist, eager to bring a little piece of Dublin back home with them. But this isn’t one for the hardcore whiskey fan, or the guy who earns sod-all PA. If this is the jumping off point for premiumisation, so be it – the oligarchs are welcome to whatever else Midleton can rattle out. For my money MVR is a better value dram, despite its uninspiring 40% bottling strength, while the Dair Ghaelach, at €260, continues to be vastly superior to both MVR and BS18.  

Finally, I hate to be the ignoramus who keeps saying a drink is ‘just a blend’, but that is, in the end, what this is. However, perhaps it is just too subtle for a culchie like me, that if I was a fey flaneur wracked with galloping consumption and urbane ennui I might be able to dig its subtlety, but for me there are many, many other superior, better value whiskeys from Midleton that the world needs to drink before they start throwing down €240 on a history lesson.

On that note, I’d like to thank my neighbours in Irish Distillers Limited for giving me this bottle for free. Awwwwwwwkward.

The end of the beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any port in a storm

We got to Heuston Station as the last train pulled out. It was only going as far as Portlaoise, so even if we had made it, we would still have had quite a walk back to Cork.

My daughter and I were in Dublin for a hospital appointment, one that only got cancelled at 10pm the night before, when we were already in the city. This meant we were trapped in the big smoke, with the worst storm in four decades bearing down on us. So we decided to go shopping.

Back in Dublin city centre it soon became clear that this was not going to be an option – almost everywhere was pulling down the shutters as we walked around, first across O’Connell Street and then up to Grafton Street. Despite the warnings that Ireland was about to get hit with a bone fide hurricane (bear in mind that the last tropical occurrence here were those really racist Lilt ads in the early Nineties), the weather was pleasantly mild, if a little breezy. But hell or high water wouldn’t keep me from the one place I always visit when in Dublin – the Celtic Whiskey Shop. I had assumed they wouldn’t be open, but, as their owner is a canny Scot who is used to actual storms, he opened. This was a godsend, as whiskey does technically fall under the remit of ‘provisions’ in any major Irish emergency.

So despite the weary groans from my teenage daughter, we ambled in to soak up the ambiance, and by ambience I naturally mean booze.

I tend to complain about the price of Irish whiskey. This is largely due to the fact that I don’t have a huge amount of disposable income, so the prices of Irish whiskey sometimes make me despair. As a result, I usually shop online and mostly buy Scotch. This is partly because of the value you get, and also the sheer variety. But what you don’t get is the enjoyment of talking to a salesperson, especially ones as expert as the staff in the Celtic Whiskey Shop. It’s little wonder that many of their staff go on to work as brand ambassadors, as they know their stuff, they know how to treat customers well, and they are a genial bunch.

As soon as we started chatting, a sample was offered, to warm the blood after braving the unseasonably mild weather outside. But this wasn’t going to be a drop of whatever was on special – they went straight for a Midleton single cask. After that – and an hour long conversation about Irish whiskey, Jim Murray, transparency, online vs offline shopping, and beef – I basically had to buy something. I asked for something interesting, so they gave me a drop of the new Teeling Brabazon port cask.

John Teeling. Picture; Gerry Mooney

The Teeling story is a remarkable one. John Teeling was a teetotaller and serial entrepreneur who had the barmy idea of buying an old, state-owned industrial distillery and using it to make whiskey for third party sales. Looking back now, more than two decades on, it seems visionary, but I would imagine that at the time it seemed quite batshit. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he played it hard and fast, ending up at loggerheads with Irish Distillers on at least one occasion, but in the end he created an empire, one that he sold to Beam Suntory for €71m in 2011.

John Teeling’s boundless energy meant he was never going to stay still – he bought the old Harp brewery in Dundalk and turned it into a distilling powerhouse, again using the third party model that had brought him so much success in Cooley. But his sons went for a riskier, bolder model.

**** NO REPRO FEE **** 13/02/2013 : DUBLIN : Independent Irish whiskey maker the Teeling Whiskey Company has launched Teeling Irish whiskey to celebrate 231 years of whiskey distilling tradition within the Teeling Family. The Teeling family’s whiskey heritage dates back to Walter Teeling who set up a distillery in 1782 in Marrowbone Lane in the Liberties, Dublin. The Teeling Whiskey Company also announced that it is carrying out a feasibility study on setting up a distillery in Dublin. Pictured launching Teeling Irish Whiskey is Jack Teeling, founder of the Teeling Whiskey Company. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.
Media contact : David Ó Síocháin Mobile 087 936 2440 email : media@teelingwhiskey.com

Jack and Stephen Teeling may be the dauphins of Irish whiskey, but they also came burdened with their father’s impressive legacy. However, there are few people in Ireland today with their insight or expertise in building a successful whiskey business. A sign of this confidence was where they opted to site their new distillery – in Dublin city’s Newmarket Square. 

After this brave move, there was the pressure to source quality stock – and this is where I am going to engage in some wild speculation. I would suggest that, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t hang on to a load of Cooley stock. Beam Suntory didn’t pay seventy million clams just for Cooley, Ireland’s ugliest distillery (they also got one of Ireland’s prettiest distilleries, Kilbeggan) and zero stock. When you pay that much for a distillery, you are not just looking for infrastructure, you are looking for booze – and lots of it.

*** NO REPRODUCTION FEE *** 29/01/2014 : Reviving the Spirit of Dublin - €10m Investment to create over 30 new jobs in Dublin’s Liberties. Teeling Whiskey Company announces plans for new Dublin whiskey distillery. Visitor Centre to attract 100,000 visitors per annum. Pictured at the new Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) whiskey distillery announcement was model Sarah Morrissey with Stephen Teeling, Sales and Marketing Director and Jack Teeling Managing Director of the Teeling Whiskey Company. The Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) has announced plans for a new whiskey distillery to be located in Dublin’s Newmarket Square in The Liberties, Dublin 8. This will be the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years and brings the Teelings home to their ancestral roots. The Teeling Whiskey Distillery will start production in the fourth quarter of 2014 with the visitor centre opening its doors in early 2015, investing €10million into The Liberties based location and creating at least 30 full time jobs. The distillery will also see 50 jobs created in the construction phase. The Teeling Whiskey brand is already on sale in Ireland and over 18 export markets. The construction of the new distillery will guarantee future supply for the Teeling Whiskey brands and allow the creation of a range of innovative and authentic Irish whiskeys based on the traditional and unique Dublin style of distillation. The proposed new Pot Still distillery will have the capacity to produce 500,000 litres of whiskey on an annual basis and will consist of three traditional copper Pot Stills reviving the traditional style of the old Dublin distilleries. Plans for the Teeling Whiskey Distillery and visitors centre were welcomed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD. The centre expects to welcome 40,000-50,000 through the doors in year one, increasing to 100,000 thereafter. Picture Conor McCabe Photographgy. For more information, please contact: Padraic Cribben 08*** NO REPRODUCTION FEE *** 29/01/2014 : Reviving the Spirit of Dublin - €10m Investment to create over 30 new jobs in Dublin’s Liberties. Teeling Whiskey Company announces plans for new Dublin whiskey distillery. Visitor Centre to attract 100,000 visitors per annum. Pictured at the new Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) whiskey distillery announcement was model Sarah Morrissey. The Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) has announced plans for a new whiskey distillery to be located in Dublin’s Newmarket Square in The Liberties, Dublin 8. This will be the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years and brings the Teelings home to their ancestral roots. The Teeling Whiskey Distillery will start production in the fourth quarter of 2014 with the visitor centre opening its doors in early 2015, investing €10million into The Liberties based location and creating at least 30 full time jobs. The distillery will also see 50 jobs created in the construction phase. The Teeling Whiskey brand is already on sale in Ireland and over 18 export markets. The construction of the new distillery will guarantee future supply for the Teeling Whiskey brands and allow the creation of a range of innovative and authentic Irish whiskeys based on the traditional and unique Dublin style of distillation. The proposed new Pot Still distillery will have the capacity to produce 500,000 litres of whiskey on an annual basis and will consist of three traditional copper Pot Stills reviving the traditional style of the old Dublin distilleries. Plans for the Teeling Whiskey Distillery and visitors centre were welcomed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD. The centre expects to welcome 40,000-50,000 through the doors in year one, increasing to 100,000 thereafter. Picture Conor McCabe Photographgy.

Similarly, if you are selling a distillery and tons of stock, you are selling it at a good price, so you are not going to get some sort of budget buy-back deal. So while there is a theory out there that all three Teelings walked away from that deal with a cartload of premium casks, it is highly unlikely. As one pundit put it to me, that would be like selling someone a car with no engine.

While the grain the Teelings use may be from Cooley (as with all things supply related, a lot of this is guesswork) it would appear their other source is Bushmills, a distillery that seems to be able to supply vast quantities of excellent whiskey to just about anyone but themselves. The Teelings’ Vintage Reserve releases would certainly suggest Bushmills, as some of those bottlings are older than Cooley Distillery itself.

But back to their sourced releases, which rarely disappoint – their first being a blend that was, and still is, one of the great bang-for-your-buck whiskeys out there. My first bottle of it came with a ringing endorsement from the Celtic Whiskey Shop a few years ago, and it is still one I would rank up there with Writers Tears as a great introduction to the ever expanding world of Irish whiskey.

So the Teelings have it all – the supply, the distillery, the know-how, a partnership with Bacardi that opens new channels across the globe; and they even had their own TV show, which I think makes them the Kardashians of Irish whiskey. 

Their sourced releases were varying degrees of excellent – here are some of the mainstream releases, not including the single casks and obscure releases:

Core Trinity Range:

Small Batch

Single Grain

Single Malt

Vintage Reserve Collection:

21 YO

26 YO

30 YO

24 YO

33 YO

Revival Series:

Vol. I

Vol. II

Vol. III

Vol. IV

Vol V (pending released 2018)

Brabazon Bottlings:

Brabazon 1

Brabazon 2

Collaborations/exclusives:

Stout Cask

Airport Exclusives  x c.10

Poitín (from their own distillery in Dublin):

Teeling Poitín

Teeling Spirit of Dublin

The Teeling brothers are looking at an Autumn 2018 date for their own stock, which will be the first new whiskey out of Dublin in quite some time, so the furore then will possibly be even more annoying than when the Dubs win the All-Ireland.

But back to Brabazon II: I asked Gabriel Corcoran from Teeling to shed a little light on the components: “There is a significant portion of white port, of a similar profile to the Carcavelos single cask release, but balanced out with a ruby port backbone and some added depth from a tawny port-finished element.”

The complete breakdown is as follows:


So on to some confusing and wildly inaccurate tasting notes:

Nose: Going to set a high bar for pretentiousness early on by saying ‘a forest in winter’ – vegetal notes, pine, an outdoorsy freshness, although that may just be the alcohol vapors freezing my face. Red liquorice, slight acetone, camphor. Less of the heavy fruit notes I expected to get from so much port cask, but then I haven’t a clue what port tastes like as I am not a feudal lord.

Palate: Fucking hell that 49.5% hits you in the goddam throat – in a good way. Lots of aniseed, ouzo, real heavy warming sensations, Benylin, the stewed fruits coming through. Hierbas, the Mallorcan liqueur,

Finish:  Dark chocolate, coffee, going to say tannic dryness even though I’m not entirely certain what that means. Cornflakes, for some bizarre reason. Hints of peppermint in the aftermath, pink peppercorns, metallic notes, and those juicy, sweet notes of the fruit.

Brabazon II in a grappa glass for some reason.

Overall, a solid release. Could it be a little better priced? Yes, it could. At close to €80, this is more expensive than the Tyrconnell 12 Madeira cask, which they used to make in Cooley, and which is one of the greats of Irish whiskey. But as with anything, this is completely subjective – bear in mind that after tax, I get paid about €80 a day, and as I work hard, it needs to be a pretty decent whiskey to justify that spend. Still, as a memento of an odd day wandering a deserted Dublin waiting for the hurricane, it was a worthwhile buy. My thanks to the guys in the Celtic Whiskey Shop for just being open, but especially to Dave Cummins, who was fantastic company, even managing to get my daughter chatting about whiskey, a topic she hates as it is ‘boring’. I mean yeah, it is totally boring, until you’re old enough to drink the stuff. But for her, that day is a long way off…he said hopefully.

Burning in water, drowning in flame

I almost drowned when I was eight. It was at Inchydoney beach, near where my dad is from; I was in the water, close to the shore. I took a step back and fell into a channel and disappeared under the water. I can still remember it – the blue haze of the water down there, the burning as seawater filled my throat and lungs, the silence. After a minute my mum dragged me out. The next year the exact same thing happened in the exact same spot. After that we swam on the main beach, away from the channels.

Trips to my mum’s family home were less eventful. I can remember my grandmother sending me out to the shed at the back to load up a steel bucket with turf for the range as she made massive pots of marmalade. Those two memories always come back to me when I taste Laphroaig Quarter Cask – burning seawater, citrus, sugar and peat smoke. Known colloquially as the medicinal malt, one of the best comparisons proffered on the Islay icon is that it ‘tastes like a burning hospital’. As someone who works in a hospital that has yet to go on fire, I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny – but I do know of one part of the building that always reminds me of Laphroaig. There is a day-unit where cancer patients attend to get their infusion of chemotherapy. It is, like much of the hospital, a place of joy and hope, sickness and sadness. Within the unit, there is a storeroom for medicines, records, medical equipment: Whatever the combination of items in there, it smells like Laphroaig QC. I always feel guilty for thinking this when I’m in there – this is a place where people come to desperately try to continue their lives, and picking up a whisky note is glib, if not ghoulish. But it is what it is – I can’t consciously control my memory, if I could I would probably erase much of the Nineties. So being reminded of drowning, peat fires or the smell of chemotherapy is not something I can summon or dismiss.  

Working in a hospital, even shuffling paperwork, isn’t an easy job. You see a lot of amazing things, but you also see a lot of loss. I can feel it since I lost my dad. I’m working in the outpatients department, around the corner from the radiotherapy department where he was treated. Sometimes I walk through there and it just pops back into my head – he is gone. During the week I was walking through one of the wards on the fifth floor, chasing down a chart for a clinic. I got a sudden hit of deja vu and stopped in my tracks, realising I was in the ward dad was in when he was first diagnosed. In the four beds in the ward were another four elderly men, possibly facing the same fate as him. And this is it – an endless rolling mill of short lives on an old planet. During the week I met the cancer nurse who cared for my dad (and my mum). She told me it was early days, that every first will bring it all back. Last week was the first Halloween. I remember when I was a kid at Halloween, my dad cutting a slice of barmbrack and I spotted the ring in it, so he gave the slice to me. For such devout Catholics, my parents always embraced the pagan feasts with enthusiasm. It’s not hard to see why our forefathers celebrated Samhain. The end of the harvest, and the start of a winter that may or may not kill you – why not have a bit of craic before you go into hibernation? Just like Christmas – the midpoint in the bleakest time of the year – it is a functional celebration, rooted in nature.

The photo above (by DMoon1) is of the Mound Of The Hostages in Meath. Similar in layout to Newgrange, it is a neolithic tomb that contains between 200 and 500 bodies. Two days of the year the light of the sun illuminates the central corridor – Samhain, what we now know as Halloween, and Imbolc, the day in February marking the end of winter (which the Christians rebranded as St Brigid’s Day). Samhain is the day when the walls between worlds are at their weakest, allowing the dead to walk the earth. Tombs like the Mound Of The Hostages were seen as portals to the other side. Throughout history we have always wanted to believe there is somewhere else. We call the dead ‘the departed’, and talk of them being gone, as though they have left on a journey, or crossed over to another plane. I’d love to think that was the case, but to me there is nothing else, only this. We live and die, and some stuff, good and bad, happens in between. Even my dad, who came from a generation where faith was bred into them, couldn’t talk about another world at the end. He occasionally mentioned how his faith was helping him, but I could see he didn’t fully believe that he was heading on some journey. He knew there was nothing else, no great reunion in the sky for him, my mum and my sister. There was only goodbye to all this.

I can feel the grief gnawing away at me, but I know that with time it will ease off. One of the hardest aspects of it is the message that comes with losing someone – someday I will be over too. And not just that, so too will everyone I know and love. My wife will die, my kids will die, their kids will die. We stop, and they put us in the ground, and that is it. I try to look on the bright side – I am probably only 50% of my way through my time. My lifespan is either half empty or half full, depending on how glum I feel. 

What I love about Laphroaig is how it polarises people, lays bare our personal tastes and bias. You will see a review that will say ‘this is disgusting, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. Another review will say ‘this is amazing, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. We are all different, but deep down we are essentially the same. Yesterday I met a man who had just lost his wife. I didn’t know this until I asked if his next of kin was the person listed, and he started to cry. I apologised, on the verge of tears myself. We choked it down, and moved on. I came home and hammered down several generous measures of Laphroaig and contemplated the dumb luck of working in the hospital that treated my mum, dad and sister before they died, and smells like a whisky I particularly like. I’m glad I didn’t drown in Inchydoney. It would have been a pretty shit turn of events for me. I would have missed a lot of stuff – good and bad – and I never would have learned to enjoy something that tastes like band aids and peroxide. 

Chaos Theory

Kurt Ballou in his studio.

Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

ALDOUS HUXLEY, Do What You Will

When Kurt Ballou was in his early teens, his parents brought him across America in a camper van for the summer holidays. With no siblings to keep him company, music became his friend. He sat in the back of the van with his headphones on, listening to his favourite bands over and over, picking apart the sounds and how they worked – as music, and on him as a listener.  He played saxophone in the school band but soon moved on to other instruments, and travelled down this path until he and his friends formed a band named Converge in the 1990s. Their early albums showed promise, but it was with 2001’s Jane Doe that they really hit their stride – one that has shown no signs of slowing, 15 years and five albums later. They have been consistently excellent for the past decade and a half, with each album hitting a remarkably high standard, despite the fact that the music they make sounds like someone driving a schoolbus off a cliff. Converge play a blitzkrieg fusion of punk, grindcore, metal and D-beat, and the cacophony of their output should theoretically be a wall of white noise permeated by occasional screams. Thankfully, that summer of forensically dissecting music has worked wonders for Ballou, as he has produced their best albums (a fact he disputes, claiming he is an engineer, not the more showbiz role of producer).

There are numerous YouTube videos of Ballou talking about how he controls the hydra-headed beast that is Converge’s sound, breaking the components down, refining, stripping, and reconnecting them as one perfectly clean aural assault. But while Converge have maintained their incredible consistency, but have never let it stop them from evolving.

Their ability to change comes from an absence of record label pressure. Big businesses don’t like change, because consumers don’t like change. As a species we tend to romanticise the knowns of the past, and fear the unknown future. We prefer the reassurances of the familiar, the road more travelled, as we march along it under the banner of ‘consistency’. It is pandering to this mindset that has lead to an artificial colourant known as E150a being added to most whiskeys in the world. Apparently the public wants all of their bottles to look the same colour, in the same way we don’t want bendy carrots or any other evidence of the wonderful chaotic individuality of nature. Look at non-chill filtering – effectively a dystopian purging of natural oils to spare the blushes of drinkers in cold climates who might not like a slight clouding of their whiskey in temperatures.  That, combined with the addition of caramel, is effectively whiskey fascism – a demand that everything look the same. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s character points out in Jurassic Park, you cannot impose order on nature; chaos theory tells us that while the present dictates the future, there is still absolutely no way of predicting it. Whiskeys change – talk to anyone who drank a certain dram 20 years ago and they will tell you exactly what has happened in the intervening decades.

Change is inevitable in life, just as it is in the whiskey industry – consider all the variables; soil, climate, grain, yeast, spirit, cask, and all of the potentially ever-changing cast of human beings involved in the whole process – so maybe they should embrace it. This is one of the reasons I love the Aberlour A’Bunadh. Released in batches, it celebrates change. Like Converge, it has a controlled ferocity – there is that white noise, white heat of a cask-strength beast, but those years in the sherry butt has tamed any feral overtones; it is a beautiful, creamy malt, rich and sweet but with that white pepper kick on the finish. Bottled at around the 60% mark and aged between five and 25 years (more youth than age, though it isn’t too apparent), a drink of an A’Bunadh is like being grasped around the throat by a mechanised fist in a velvet glove. Even the bottle looks like it was designed for war; short and squat like an artillery shell, with a wide, roaring mouth.

A Boer War artillery shell.A'bunadh.

There is, of course, a completely ridiculous back story to go with the A’bunadh, one that is told on the distillery tours; it involves time capsules, drunk workmen and a newspaper from 1898. It brings nothing to the drink itself, which has more than enough qualities to stand apart from any marketing narrative. However, if you do happen to visit Aberlour Distillery, in one of the main halls of the visitors centre is a large camera obscura photo of two hands holding a bottle of A’bunadh – the photo having been taken by Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons.

Neil Ridley in Aberlour Distillery VC during Spirit Of Speyside 2015.

It was in this room that I first tasted this whisky, at an event hosted by Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison. They were pairing whisky with the music of Bowie and Cash, drawing parallels between the two, beneath this ethereal photo of a whisky, taken by a musician. 

While I loved the Aberlour whiskies, the music was not to my taste, because I like life a little bit louder. I always thought I would grow out of metal, a genre that is generally perceived to be pretty immature. However, I also never thought I’d grow into whiskey. For me they are two sides of the same coin – a desire to crank the senses up to 11. Most people recoil when they hear Converge, just as they recoil when taking that first sip of whiskey – the intensity of both is something to be reckoned with. But Kurt Ballou and Aberlour Distillery have the ability to take disparate, intense elements – high strength/loud noise, big flavours/massive riffs – and blend them to create a constantly evolving product without sacrificing standards. Because the only consistency we should seek is that of quality.

 

A bottle of Batch 55 A’bunadh is an exceptionally good value €55 on MasterOfMalt – and you can watch Ballou talking about the creation of Jane Doe here. And, if you want to challenge your hearing (and definition of what constitutes music), this is what Converge sound like:

You probably need a drink now.