Death and empire

I hadn’t been in Powerscourt House & Gardens since I was a child. My memories of it are vague – rolling down the grassy hills with my sister, getting lost in the Japanese gardens, and being scared by the statues of gods and monsters. Walking through the house and back out onto that incredible garden, three decades later, was a supremely odd feeling – my family are gone, and I was there alone, wandering around thinking about all those memories I now carry alone, moments to which I am the only living witness, and how no matter the power of the love we feel for each other, in the end it is all for naught as every living thing will one day die. So you have to just grab this motherfucker of a life with both hands and sink your teeth into it. In other words, when you get an invite to the opening of a distillery, even one 300 kilometres away, you go.

At some point down the road I will write a proper piece on Powerscourt Distillery, but some initial thoughts: What this project has is pedigree. Director Alex Pierce has a background in start-ups, but it is his link to Arran that is most impressive – his family have a track record of setting up and operating a very successful distillery. Master distiller Noel Sweeney is that most rare of creatures – an actual master distiller. There are many who use that title, but to me it has to be earned, rather that just assigned. Mastery should be proved.

So you have a director who knows what he is about, a distiller who is a master, and a setting that is glorious. The location, on the grounds of Powerscourt estate, and next door to one of the great old houses of Ireland, offers elements that many distilleries here lack – history, heritage, grandeur.

Powerscourt is also home to an exceptional five-star hotel, one that a commoner like me could nary afford. I had heard it was quite the celeb hangout, but nothing prepared me for who I spotted when I walked in the door, the biggest celebrity in Ireland if not the world – Craig fucking Doyle! Incredible, can’t believe I saw him in real life and not in an in-flight magazine trying to sell me insurance or electricity. 

Anyway – here is some rich, delicious press release to fill this post out a bit:

The Powerscourt Distillery Launches Three New Whiskey Expressions

Introducing Fercullen Premium Irish Whiskeys

The Powerscourt Distillery proudly unveils three new Irish whiskeys under the brand name Fercullen; Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey. Released by award winning Master Distiller Noel Sweeney, these opening expressions form part of a planned portfolio of premium Irish whiskeys being launched by the distillery and soon to open Distillery Visitor Centre.

‘FeraCulann’ or ‘Fercullen’ is the Gaelic name given to the ancient and strategically important lands that surround and encompass Powerscourt Estate. Literally translated it stands for “Men of Cuala” or “Men of the Wicklow Hills”, the historical context of which has involved several centuries of local discourse, dispute and battle prior to the arrival of peace and calm in the hands of visionary custodians.

Set against the stunning backdrop of the great Sugarloaf Mountain and enjoying a long heritage of dedication and craftmanship, Powerscourt has become one of Ireland’s most treasured estates – an inspiring location where the extraordinary is possible. With an underground lake of the purest Wicklow water, close proximity to rich farming lands and a temperate coastline climate It sets the perfect stage for distilling and maturing Irish whiskey.

According to Alex Peirce, Chief Executive of The Powerscourt Distillery.  “Our location is important in that it provides inspiration. The local history, heritage and natural beauty of Powerscourt are all  cohesive elements in providing the perfect platform for Noel’s work. We use pure mineral water that has filtered down into the Estate from the surrounding Wicklow hills and we are located close to some of the best barley growing lands in Ireland. Perseverance and patience have long represented the cornerstones to whiskey production and so it seemed fitting to adopt “Fercullen”, the ancient name for these lands, to introduce to our whiskey story at The Powerscourt Distillery.

Once the hub of all farming on the Estate, an Old Mill House that dates back to 1730’s has been faithfully restored and extended to form part of the Distillery buildings. It boasts a water mill deep in its foundations, while outside on the north-west wall of the building, a bell that was used to herald the daily lunch break to workers in distant fields presents a nod to former times and local practice. Both are being preserved to form part of the wider visitor experience.

The carefully appointed distillery, visitor centre and adjoining maturation facilities form the initial phase of the building project. Three traditional, custom-designed copper pot stills from world-renowned Forsyths form the centrepiece at The Powerscourt Distillery.

The Powerscourt Distillery Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has played a huge part in the design and commissioning of the modern plant. Noel’s experience, spanning over 30 years, has earned him global recognition and sits comfortably in a place renowned for attention to detail, craft and vision.  Having formerly distilled the spirit that will be used by Fercullen, Noel is now also responsible for the new spirit being produced and laid down by the distillery – a unique attribute on today’s Irish whiskey landscape.

“The decisions that I make impart huge influence over the spirit produced,” says Noel Sweeney, Master Distiller at Powerscourt Distillery.  “So many choices and decisions affect the way that spirit forms and matures into whiskey”

To mark and celebrate its opening year the Powerscourt Distillery has also designed a limited availability Cask Programme – the first and only such programme that it will undertake. At 397 casks (each one representing a foot of water from the nearby Powerscourt Waterfall), the cask programme offers a premium level of involvement and association with the distillery to private individuals who wish to become part of The Powerscourt Distillery family. Together with ownership of a 200L new fill cask to be housed in the Distillery’s warehouse on the Estate, members will enjoy exclusive access to special events and private whiskey tastings, first access to limited edition whiskeys and an exclusive presentation of the otherwise unavailable Fercullen 16-Year-Old Single Malt.

Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey €58 RRP, Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey €92 RRP and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey €45 RRP is available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, The Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow; The Celtic Whiskey Shop and Mitchell & Sons, or online from www.powerscourtdistillery.com

The Powerscourt Distillery and Visitor Centre is currently available for a private, group bookings by appointment only.  Contact claire.hickey@powerscourtdistillery.com for information. For information on cask purchases please contact info@powerscourtdistillery.com.

Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has received several awards for distilling and whiskey excellence.  He was inducted into The Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017 and currently remains as one of just two Irish distillers to have been recognised in this way.  A globally renowned whiskey expert, Noel is passionate about his craft and has released many international award-winning Irish whiskies over the years. He is a member of the Irish Spirits Association, a founding member of the Irish Whiskey Association and a key contributor to the GI technical file for Irish whiskey.  Noel has devoted over 30 years patiently honing his craft and learning from former masters. He held a former position as assistant distiller to Gordon Mitchell, the first distiller at the Isle of Arran Distillery, Scotland.

The provenance of The Powerscourt Estate can be traced back to the 6th century, to a territory that stretches across fertile plains and through rugged mountainous terrain.  Known in its native Gaelic tongue as “Fera-Culann” or Fercullen, its location in the foothold of the Wicklow mountains, so close to Dublin, made it a highly valued, strategic place.  Ownership was claimed by numerous factions over the centuries, from the native Clans of O’Toole and O’Byrne, to the Norman house of LePoer, who built a castle there and from whom the estate takes its name.  In the early 17th century, Powerscourt was gifted by Queen Elizabeth I to a favoured army general, Sir Richard Wingfield, an ancestral relative of the Slazenger family who currently hold the Estate.

One of the best parts of the evening, apart from the incredible meal, great wines, cracking whiskeys, and being seated next to Noel Sweeney and hearing all his insane stories from the business, was seeing so many people who care passionately for Irish whiskey – John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan, Serghios from Irish Whiskey Magazine, the Burkes from Cask Magazine, John Wilson from the Irish Times, Suzi and Liam from TheTaste, Susan ‘Not The X-Factor One’ Boyle – a writer, performer, PhDer, and general Renaissance person – and Leslie Williams from the Irish Examiner, the first journalist to start raising the transparency issue in Irish whiskey. It was like seeing The Avengers in real life. 

My many thanks also to Rebecca and Sarah from Burrell PR for inviting me, and to everyone for putting up with me giving out about my kids, who I missed terribly and raced home to see the next day. Well, raced home once I went to the waterfall and took these photos, like a sadcase.

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.

Caledonia calling

The back garden of Linn House in Keith.

Three years ago I flew home from the Spirit Of Speyside with a heavy heart. After spending a week there, I was going back to the real world in the knowledge that I would never have the time or, more importantly, the money, to come back. I went back home, wrote a piece for the Irish Examiner, wrote a sprawling blog post, and sang the praises of the festival every chance I got. That week in Scotland genuinely was one of the best things to come out of my time as a journalist, a once in a lifetime opportunity to sample great whiskies, meet industry legends and just lose myself in a beautiful part of the world. It saddened me greatly that I wouldn’t be back again.

Fast forward three years and I am doing my usual blithering about whiskey on the internet when I get a DM, telling me that if I can make it to Speyside, Chivas Brothers will put me up and show me the sights. I didn’t bother asking for T&Cs, nor did I care is this was a set-up that was going to end with me waking up in a bathtub full of ice and my kidneys missing. All that mattered was that I was going back. And so it was that via car, train, bus and plane I made it from Cork to Speyside just in time for the opening ceilidh in Benromach.

I love Benromach. Owned by the Urquharts of Gordon & McPhail fame – the firm without whom there would be no single malts – the whisky made in this compact little distillery has that perfect mix of smoke, fruit and attitude. The Scots learn ceilidh dancing in school, so when they have a hooley everyone can have a go. The pace of the dances ranges from fast to frenzied, with partners flinging each other around the place as though the sole aim is to launch another human being into the stratosphere. Frankly, I haven’t seen anything comparable outside of the mosh pit at a Napalm Death gig. Each table had a few bottles of whisky on them – we had a Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, Aberlour 16, and a Strathisla 12, so those combined with some good wine, and great food meant we were all ready for a crack at the dancing. The key to survival on a Scottish dancefloor is to simply submit to the maelstrom and try not to fall over.  

It was bizarre to see so many faces that I knew from Twitter whizzing by me, and it really brought home why festivals like this are so important. Whisky can be a lonely passion – it’s a great irony that something meant to be shared and enjoyed with others is so often consumed alone in front of a computer screen. Still, if it wasn’t for connecting with my fellow nerds on the internet I would think there was something wrong with me. But then you come to this festival and everyone is there in real life, going at the dancefloor like whirling dervishes, and you feel a little less alone. It set the tone for the rest of my stay – whisky, community, life.

The group of influencers, writers and journalists with Alex Robertson of Chivas on the left. But wait – what is that spectral figure at back left? Could it be a ghost?

When I was at the festival in 2015 I was with three journalists. This time was different – while there were some dedicated whisky journalists, half the group were that most ephemeral of creatures – the influencer. Curiously, I was also there as an influencer, despite the closest I come to being an influencer is the fact that I drive a Fluence. The thought of me having influence over anyone is terrifying, as I’m a hair’s breadth away from turning into Jim Jones as it is. So there were bloggers, vloggers, whisky writers and me. It shows how journalism is changing; if you want to hit a certain demographic – ie, anyone under 65 – newspapers are becoming less and less important. If you want to grab the fabled millennial demographic, you are better getting a few smart blog posts than any amount of coverage in the mainstream press. Another sign of the times was the number of former journalists I met who now work within the whisky industry – PR staff, comms managers to brand ambassadors, so many left journalism because they wanted to have a job that offered security.

My home for the four days was Linn House, a beautiful 140-year-old house in Keith, next to Strathisla and Glen Keith distilleries. Chivas Brothers own the house and use it for guests – this isn’t somewhere you book, you have to be invited there, which makes it all the more special.

The bedrooms are all named after Chivas Brothers distilleries (I slept in Miltonduff), but the real celebration of whisky is in The Library. Here we had our aperitifs, all rare drams from the Chivas stable; I favoured a 17-year-old Aberlour that was like molasses, a succulent depth charge of a dram.

We started Friday with a hearty Scottish brekkie and hit the road for Aberlour Distillery. There, Dr Kathy Ader brought us on a walk along the river that feeds the distillery, up to the waterfall behind it and through the woods, talking all the time about the vegetation that grew there, how it was used by picts to make medicines, and how the river and the soil influenced the forest, the town and the distillery. In essence, this was a discussion on one of the buzzwords in whisky right now – terroir. It was an exploration of place, giving insights into how the soil caused certain fauna to grow, and how these plants then drew druids, and in turn settlers, and then a distillery. Aberlour distillery wasn’t just plonked there because it was a pretty spot – it is where it is because it was meant to be there.

After digging into the ancient past, it was time to embrace the future. One of the most recently built and most modern distilleries in Scotland, Dalmunach is a reminder that not all distilleries have to look like Strathisla. This building is a celebration of science, a vast distillery that can be operated by just one person. The still room looks like one of the ships in Alien, with huge bulbous stills and one desk monitoring it all, and one pilot setting the controls for the heart of the run. This is the next generation of distillery, built on the grounds of the old: Imperial Distillery stood here, but it is long dead – you can still pick up a bottle of Imperial from time to time, but it has never been held in the high regard allocated to other silent stills. The red bricks in the foyer of Dalmunach are all that remains of the actual Imperial distillery building, however the old offices and stores are still on site, providing a curious contrast with the science-fiction aesthetics of Dalmunach.

Dalmunach is all about control and consistency, a point made to us by manager Richard Clark was our guide through the plant. I met Richard at a Glen Keith your in 2018 and he is one of those natural-born communicators who litter the whisky industry – part scientist, part historian, part raconteur, part comedian. I asked him if the future of whisky was a world where the master distiller is replaced by an algorithm; he made the point that the human, the natural and the organic will always be central to whisky, and that consistency did not mean ‘without soul’, just as it did not mean ‘better’. He also spoke about how the happy accidents of distilling that made for exception whiskies in the past won’t disappear as they will continue to experiment, albeit in a controlled fashion where they minimise waste and reduce margins of error. Any distillery built on the bones of Imperial needs to be aware that there is a price to pay for being a less-than-stellar producer.

There is no maturation done at Dalmunach – the spirit is shipped off to be casked and aged, with a large amount of it to India for Pernod whisky brands there such as Royal Stag. At the end of our visit we sampled some of the Dalmunach whisky, aged just three years old – it was smooth, well-made whisky, as you’d expect from a Promethean monolith.

After that odyssey through the Spey’s time continuum, it was time to go back to the past with a private tour of one of the icons of whisky – Strathisla. This is one of those picture-postcard distilleries that all others aspire to, and it is the birthplace of the Chivas story. It was a great contrast, going from Dalmunach to a distillery that has lived so long. Our tour guide was Alex Robertson, a former BBC journalist who heads up the Chivas ambassador programme.

One of the great things about visiting distilleries during the festival is being able to take photos – simply listen for the gas meter, and if it doesn’t go haywire, click away. And so it is that I can show you irrefutable proof that despite being one of the most beautiful distilleries in the world, the stills at Strathisla look a lot like butt plugs:

After the tour we were brought to their newly revamped tasting space, a dimly lit room that uses LED striplighting to create the sense of being brought on a journey of flavour.

The aged cynic in me raises my eyes to heaven even reading back over that, but it was very enjoyable – a lot of distilleries here could learn from how the Scots find new ways to make tastings more stimulating, or to challenge the stereotype of whisky being drunk by chaps in red trousers slouched in a plaid armchair in a gentleman’s club somewhere.

The next event was designed to challenged the notion of single malt as an entity to be enjoyed on its own. The Dowans Hotel in Aberlour was the venue for a tasting of three cocktails made with single malts (the one made with A’bunadh was phenomenal), followed by a wonderful meal, more wine, more chat, more craic. Then it was on to The Glenlivet for Skerryvore and Banjo Lounge 4, and at this point I just wanted my leaba. So we skedaddled into the night back to Keith. I like live music, but man, I love to sleep.

The Glenlivet Open Day is a sight to behold. Visitors from all over the world arriving by the busload (or trekking across the hills to get there), all to see the home of one of the most iconic whisky brands in the world. This is where my trip got deep. In the Guardians Library we had a talk on geology and its impact on water (and therefore whisky) from Ronald Daalmans, a softly spoken Dutchman who is the environmental manager with Chivas Brothers. Much of his work for the firm relates to the impact of distilling on the environment but also water preservation. It’s hard to travel through Scotland without being made aware of the power of renewable energies – across so many hills there are wind turbines looming to remind you that this planet is struggling, vast sentinels desperately flailing their arms to tell you that this planet is going to drown.

Ronald talked us through the geological history of Scotland – one of the most interesting factoids to come from the talk was that both Islay and Speyside sit atop the same seam of rock, meaning that the broader geology of their landscapes is similar. We then had a comparative tasting of water that feeds into three Speyside distilleries and whiskies from same. Don’t ask me which distilleries the drams came from, I have no idea – but you could definitely taste difference in the water. Of course, the big question here is how much is the water that feeds the distilleries treated before it goes into production: How much of its original character does it retain through this process? It’s not quite reverse osmosis or deionising like they do to totally neutralise the water used to cut whisky pre-bottling, but you would wonder what how much limestone sediment etc any distillery would want in its system.

Of course, back in ye olden times distillers were less particular, but the results were largely the same. During the open day, distillery staff ran what is known as the sma’ still, a little piece of the past brought back to life. The spirit from it was similar to modern new make, a creamy sweet drop, which we drank straight from the still.

After that, it was time to disappear into the hills behind the distillery on the back of an argocat.

Argocats, in case you didn’t know, are amphibious vehicles that are used mainly for hunting, or for transporting fey dandies like myself from valley to summit without having to break a sweat. At the summit we had a dram, and it all felt a bit Withnail & I, subjecting ourselves to the beauty of nature after about seven drinks.

Back in the valley we also had a tasting with Glenlivet master distiller Alan Winchester. Alan is like a vast reservoir of whisky lore, and during the tasting he talked about everything, including how the old Dunville’s distillers in Belfast forced the local church to cover their bell in velvet so it wouldn’t disturb the whisky maturing nearby. We were treated to four Glenlivet expressions, including the new Cognac cask edition, and some incredible finger food by Ghillie Basan, who lives high in the hills above The Glenlivet. She actually took the roof slates from her house to serve the food on, and was hoping the rain would hold off until she got them all back on.

Later that evening was a very special meal in Strathisla. With a menu selected by noted food writer and whisky aficionado Martine Nouet, and some incredible whiskies from the Chivas stable, it was a joy to be there and a wonderful end to my few days. I was sat beside Sean Murphy, food and drinks editor of The Scotsman newspaper, one of the few people who I met in Speyside who still worked full time in print. Sean’s family own the legendary Pot Still whisky bar in Glasgow, and he is one of those quietly passionate whisky fans who is a fountain of information. However, I was also sat near another fountain of knowledge, Alan Winchester.

Winchester is retiring at the end of the year, and it’s hard to imagine the Glenlivet without him. He was great company, as was his wife, who was sat on the other side of me, and they both regaled us with the tale of how she used a bottle of the Winchester Collection to make a Christmas cake, no knowing that it was worth twenty grand. As for life after whisky, Alan says he bought a campervan and is going to travel (he is an obsessive hillwalker), whilst also contemplating working on his memoirs. Note to any publishers or ghostwriters – he has kept a diary every day since he was in his teens, so there is plenty material there for one hell of a book. 

Many thanks to Chivas Brothers for their incredible hospitality and generosity during the festival – I will be back.

My takehome from the four days I spent in Scotland was this – how do Irish distilleries emulate this event? How do we pull together to create a relatively localised event that celebrates food, drink, scenery, history and culture? Our whiskey scene is going to be more of a trail than a single detination, so the question is how do we facilitate this? The IWA has a document that tackles some of it by joining distilleries via a network of whiskey embassies – pubs and historical sites of interest to whiskey fans – but we are still going to struggle to create something on the scale of Speyside or Feis Ile, as the logistics are too complex. That said, we have great food, great drink, great people and a great country – we just have to wait a while for the new Irish whiskey legends to rise.