A long goodbye

 

-NO REPRODUCTION FEE –
Barry Crockett, Jameson Master Distiller pictured at the Midleton Distillery, Cork laying down casks for 2030, Jameson’s 250th Anniversary
Pic. John Allen /John Sheehan Photography

 

In 2013, Barry Crockett retired from his role as master distiller in Midleton. His father Max was master distiller before him, and the family lived in the distiller’s cottage on the grounds. It was in this house that Barry was born. It was an old way of life in distilling, one that just doesn’t exist any more.

To mark Barry’s retirement, a local freesheet named The Cork News spoke to him about the change that was coming in his life and how he felt about it. The interview was conducted by the fantastically talented Maria Tracey, who sadly later left journalism for PR.  The paper she wrote it for is no more. Their website was still active until recently, but now that too is gone. So here, for posterity, is the interview. Obviously, I have absolutely no claim to this, as it is not my work, nor do I have any copyright over it, but it’s an excellent piece worth preserving on some platform.

“I wake up at about 6.30am, and my first thought is usually influenced by whatever the news headlines were the previous evening. I wonder what has changed overnight, in terms of world news, and turn on the radio to listen to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.

A rushed breakfast normally involved cranberry or orange juice and two slices of toast with ham, tomatoes or bananas. It’s never anything too dramatic. I then head to the Midleton Distillery, where I’m head distiller, and get on with all the normal things that one does when they go to work in the morning.

It might seem unusual for those outside looking in that I was literally born into the job. When my father, Max left school, he was offered a position in the Watercourse Distillery in Blackpool and was eventually promoted to Midleton around 1945. He became master distiller and I was born at the Distiller’s Cottage where the old distillery is now.

Looking back, as a child I can remember being around the garden and seeing people coming and going. I remember the horses, one of my earliest memories. At the time, as was the case in Cork city, horses were widely used for transporting materials. There were several in Midleton hauling very heavy carts, just like the horses in the Budweiser ads.

I’ve spent all my life here, but for me, that’s not strange. As a child you accept these things and it’s only with hindsight that you can really evaluate it. Back then, in professions like banking or medicine, it was quite normal for a father to be a bank manager or doctor, and their son afterwards. And so becoming a distiller was a path for me. It wasn’t exactly cast in stone but more of an ‘open door’. I could have done other things but distilling was the way it ended up. If that hadn’t been the case, I was always particularly interested in history so maybe the teaching profession was a route I could have taken.

Every morning I receive a report on what has happened over the previous 12 or 14 hours, as the distillery is a seven-day week, round-the-clock operation. We have a quality meeting, which involves a wider group of people, and of course, part of the head distiller’s job is to assess quality.

The journey of the whiskey starts with the harvesting of the barley in the autumn. It’s all sourced within a 35-mile radius of the distillery but we don’t buy barley directly from farmers anymore, as the volumes are too large. Instead merchants assemble it to our specifications and if we are happy with it, then we will arrange to purchase the stock for the brewing process. The barley is malted and we effectively produce a type of beer that we describe as a ‘wash’, with an alcohol content of 10%.

Then there is the triple distillation sequence. You fill a very large, onion-shaped copper vessel- and when I say large, I mean very large, with a capacity of 750 hectolitres, or about 17,500 gallons- and apply heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water so by boiling the wash at around 80°C the alcohol vapours rise out of the neck of the still and through a condenser to return back into a liquid. It is then distilled a second time and ultimately a third time until you have a spirit with the strength of 84% left.

Maturation follows and the alcohol is reduced in strength by the addition of water, which is filled into a number of different types of oak barrels. Of course, by law, whiskey has to be matured for a minimum of three years. In most cases it would be way more. It’s a long-term investment where whiskey’s involved.

During the day, each batch of new spirit is assessed. We produce around 100,000 litres of pure alcohol every 24 hours, so it’s a big operation that’s going to become an awful lot bigger- doubling to 200,000- with the expansion.

Another important aspect of the job is that following maturation, we send tankers of finished whiskey to our bottling facilities in Dublin and we have a tasting exercise set up so nothing leaves the plant until it passes quality control. After that is taken care of, there is administration work to follow up on, and meetings about ongoing engineering work.

It’s all extremely exciting. In my career I’ve seen three separate distilleries being started, which is unusual. There was an expansion at the old distillery back in the late 60s, when I just started working here. And then there was the major expansion in the mid to late 70s and now, of course, there is a whole new development with innovative techniques like energy efficient column stills.

I am stepping back from it. You don’t walk into a job like this and take it over overnight. So, when I retire my colleague, Brian Nation, who has been working with us for years, will be taking over from me. It’s an appropriate time for me to go, as I’m passing on the baton to a younger generation. The fact that the industry is so long-lived is fantastic, you can see generations and generations carrying on and developing the business.

The techniques we use have been tried and tested. What each era brings is a small improvement overall with better technology. What we are distilling today won’t appear in the form of whiskey until 20 years time and while I certainly hope that I’ll be around in 20 years time, the industry will obviously have evolved. We sometimes say we are just tenants or custodians for a brief period of time, before handing it on.

I know my father could never have imagined the success of Jameson. It’s a remarkable story as the Irish distillery industry was in quite a weakened state in the early 60s. The pooling of interests by a rather enlightened group of directors to form the Irish Distilleries Group and the decision to export outside of Ireland followed by the taking on of the Group by Pernod Ricard in the 80s has seen annual case sales of Jameson going from 450,000 to four million cases per annum. That is quite remarkable.

For lunch, I usually eat in the canteen. They have a very good selection there, like roast beef or curry with rice and chips. I also have a few cups of tea throughout the day.

After lunch, I may have to meet with a barley supplier on the prospects for the forthcoming harvest. Commodities are highly volatile in terms of price levels and we have to predict the cost so we can budget for it. Nothing happens without the money there!

The end of the day is about assessing what happened over the previous hours and looking ahead to what will happen over the coming night. I finish up around 5.30pm and may have a dinner to go to or a conference. If I head home, my wife Bridget and I have tea at around 7pm. I can’t eat too much at night, just a salad. I don’t want to have two dinners in one day.

To be honest, I prefer to be out a lot of time if I can manage it. I’m a member of different clubs like the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve always liked hill walking as well but I haven’t been doing a lot of that recently, so maybe I’ll have more time in the future. I also have a strong interest in sailing but last summer was disastrous!

With it being winter, we’ve been to a plethora of films over the last month, like Argo and Lincoln. In the evenings, I usually read the newspapers after tea, because I don’t have time during the day. I would be a whiskey drinker- not at work obviously- but more for relaxation. Not on a regular basis, but if there are events that I have to attend, then I will have a glass there.

Looking back, being appointed head distiller in 1981 was a defining time for me. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in terms of how things have developed. What is totally unexpected is the Lifetime Achievement award by the Whisky Advocate magazine that I picked up and will be presented with in October. I must say it is something quite amazing as it’s the first time an Irish man has been chosen.

Retiring on Monday, March 18th, might seem like it’s linked to St Patrick’s Day but it’s actually my birthday, my 65th to be precise. So as it’s a public holiday, I’ll probably finish the Friday beforehand. Honestly, I think that will be my real defining moment. It will not be the end or a descent into aimless nothingness. It’s, as I like to describe it, the beginning of my new career.”

Today in ‘Things I Was Not Invited To’

When I joined Twitter three years ago, I struggled to come up with a handle. I opted for @Midleton_Rare, as I am A) from Midleton and B) a whiskey fan. When I started this blog I thought it a good idea to unify my ‘brand’ by having MidletonRared as the domain. 

Anyway, both the Twitter handle and blog name led to some confusion, with a few individuals mistakenly believing that I worked for Irish Distillers, despite the fact that I am openly critical of them and clearly know nothing about whiskey. Whilst I applied for many jobs in Midleton Distillery over the years – just about anything from distillery cat to master distiller – I have zero affiliation with IDL, apart from liking their work and having a sense of local pride. Yet the perception persists – most recently it reared its head in the comments section of the Hyde piece, prompting me to change both my Twitter handle and blog title, just in time for IDL to rebrand and relaunch the 2017 expression of Midleton Very Rare with its very own online presence. 

 

They also have a lovely website over at MidletonVeryRare.com and last night held a shindig in one of the warehouses here in Midleton to launch MVR 2017 and their new super-deluxe cask offerings:

The Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Selecting a cask of Midleton Very Rare whiskey is a truly unique experience. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required.

The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. Thirty casks have been made available at launch, with prices available on request.

By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world.

Jean Christophe-Coutures, Chairman and CEO at Irish Distillers, commented: “Irish Distillers introduced the world to luxury Irish whiskey back in 1984 and Midleton Very Rare has since become the embodiment for exceptional quality, craftsmanship and collectability. The unveiling of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club and the new Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release heralds a new era for luxury Irish whiskey and is testament to the growing demand for our finest, prestige Irish whiskeys around the world.  We are proud of our position as long-standing guardians of our sector and we look forward to welcoming new additions to the Midleton Very Rare range in the years to come. Today’s launch allows Midleton Very Rare to further build upon its position as the pinnacle of Irish whiskey.”

Just two Master Distillers have had the privilege of preserving the legacy of Midleton Very Rare with only a select number of casks deemed of sufficient excellence and rarity to bear the Midleton Very Rare name. Midleton Very Rare 2017 has been specially blended from a hand selected batch of ex-Bourbon Barrels ranging in age from 12 years to 32 years. The 2017 edition also marks a redesign for the brand, featuring a unique bottle design and presentation box that further completes the overall Midleton Rare experience and better reflects the quality and rarity of the whiskey inside. The elegant bottle takes inspiration from a writer’s ink well and a soft dip in the shoulder echoes the nib of a pen, creating a subtle link to Ireland’s literary legacy.

Speaking about Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release 2017, Master Distiller, Brian Nation commented: “It has been a privilege for me to continue the legacy of Midleton Very Rare that Barry Crockett started in 1984. Midleton Very Rare is rightfully regarded as the pinnacle of Irish whiskey with each vintage cherished by collectors and whiskey enthusiasts all over the world. Due to the handcrafted nature of this whiskey, there are slight variances in taste from year to year which add to the special nature of this whiskey. The 2017 cask selection includes some 32-year-old Midleton Grain Whiskey which will contribute the lighter floral perfume notes along with some citrus fruit. A 26-year-old Single Pot Still whiskey has also been selected, which delivers a wide spectrum of typical spice character, such as sweet cinnamon and clove.”

Bottled at 40% ABV and without chill-filtration, the new-look Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release 2017 is available from this month at the RRP of €180 and is available in the USA, Canada, Ireland and Ireland Travel Retail.

Matt Healy has a great post on the history of Midleton Very Rare, one of the most recognisable premium Irish whiskeys – it even got a mention in Peter Kelly’s excellent book on the last days of Ireland financial Gomorrah, Breakfast With Anglo.

One of the sad side effects of being such a well-known luxury spirit is that it does attract a lot of gauche idiots – the ‘it’s the most expensive and therefore the best’ brigade. If I was recommending a premium Irish whiskey for drinking rather than investing, I’d always direct towards Dair Ghaelach or Redbreast 21, but MVR persists in the minds as the best Irish whiskey. It isn’t, and while I don’t like dissing blends, it is one, albeit a very expensive one.

How the collectors will take the 2017 makeover remains to be seen, but it certainly is a sign of confidence on the part of IDL to change a collectable this much. Here are the ones that went before:

And here is 2017:

Despite the makeover, and despite the price, I’ve no doubt it will sell – being an annual release makes it a great gift to mark births, weddings, or the collapse of a business  empire. As for the contents, Michael Foggarty of L Mulligan Grocer was at the launch last night, and tweeted this:

As for pricing in the cask club, there’s this:

Yikes. There’s more detail over on JustDrinks:

A total of 30 casks are on sale, with a spokesperson for Irish Distillers confirming to just-drinks that they will cost between EUR75,000 (US$88,025) and EUR450,000, depending on age and type.

Christ.

Perhaps one of the rarer sights on the night was Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett, a man steeped in whiskey lore – born in the distiller’s cottage, his father Max was master distiller before him, and it is Barry who is credited with a lot of the success of Irish whiskey today, particularly in the resuscitation of the pot still whiskey category.

Barry is part of the old world of whiskey – modern master distillers tend to be PR savvy, smooth operators; Barry is just this quiet, unassuming chap who likes history, reading and sailing, and also just happens to be one of the saviours of Irish whiskey. I’ve no doubt that as the category goes from strength to strength, the success of the Midleton Very Rare series will be a lasting legacy of his vision and skill.

Of human bonders, manifesto, faerie folk, perseids

Week 15 of the column, and somehow it still is a thing that exists:

 

Few things in this world escape the oily touch of gender politics – not even our precious booze. From the manly pint of Guinness to the ladylike bottle of West Coast Cooler, marketing firms have yet to fully retract their tentacles from our brands. But of all drinks, whiskey is one that still struggles to free itself from the suffocating quicksand of masculinity.

In the post-war era came to be entwined with notions of manliness, a fact that hasn’t served the diversity of the whiskey scene well. It was a thought that came to mind when reading a blog post by whiskey bonder Louise McGuane about her time working as a brand ambassador for global spirits firms. It makes for grim reading as she recounts several instances of harassment, including one deranged Carry On style incident, with a sales rep in a bathrobe appearing at her second storey hotel window, clawing at the glass like one of the vampires in Salem’s Lot. Awful as the stories are, the saddest part is her admittance that she making a complaint about these people would have hurt her career. So she did what many women did, and simply put up with it.

Her post was actually written to celebrate the fact that she has just hired a new ambassador for her Chapel Gate whiskey brand (bringing her staff number to two, including herself). She expressed the hope that the world – and the whiskey scene – is a better place now, and her employee won’t have to navigate the obstacle course of sexual harassment that she had to. And besides, one would hope that the omens for her whiskey are good, given that her ambassador (above) is named after St Blaise – the patron saint of maladies of the throat.

One person currently experiencing bad omens is the engineer at Google who wrote a lengthy screed that was ostensibly about why men are better than women. He went into a lot more detail than that, and used a lot of big words and overwrought sentences, but ultimately his message about women in tech was the same as Ron Burgundy’s newsteam when they heard there was going to be a woman reading the news: It’s anchorman, not anchorlady.

The man who wrote the manifesto – it’s always a man, which is why it’s not called a womanifesto – has fallen back on that classic excuse of wanting to ‘open an honest discussion’ about ‘left leaning bias’. Sadly it seems like he will be the one left leaning, as he has been fired, and will spend a while thinking about how superior he is whilst signing on.

You know who has no gender? The faerie folk. They are mercifully free from genitalia, and thus have much more time to spend on lengthy excavation projects that undermine local infrastructure. It was pleasing to see John B Keane character made flesh Danny Healy Rae speaking out about the gentle folk and how they are causing subsidence in a Kerry road. Previously known for thinking Noah’s Ark was an actual thing that happened, or that a big dinner affects your driving in the same manner as a pint or two, you can’t but feel that maybe everything he says is a gloriously postmodern prank. Given that his haulage firm has been paid more than eight million euro in State contracts, someone has to be laughing all the way to the bank with their pot of gold.

From the faerie folk to the gods; the Perseid meteor shower is due to light up the skies this weekend. As we spend more and more time staring down at our phones – even while driving – it is good to sometimes look up and be amazed at the wonders of space, or just to look up so you don’t rear-end a schoolbus.

On Friday and Saturday night, the shower will hit its peak. It is worth looking up and remembering that human beings and our galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms – we are mostly stars. As the meteors skim across our atmosphere and disappear in a blaze of glory, take a moment to think about how futile it is to live on this little planet with meaningless divisions like race, or gender, or religion, as one day we too will burn out. And if it gets too cold while you’re out there stargazing and musing about the future of humanity, you can always warm up with a drop of whiskey.

Hyde and seek

Augustine of Hippo knew a few things about lying. In about 395AD he wrote a couple of books on the subject, and in one, De Mendacio (On Lying), he detailed a compendium of the reasons people lie. As listicles go, it stands pretty strong to this day: Here they are, in order of descending severity:

  • Lies in religious teaching
  • Lies that harm others and help no one
  • Lies that harm others and help someone
  • Lies told for the pleasure of lying
  • Lies told to “please others in smooth discourse”
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone materially
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone spiritually
  • Lies that harm no one and that protect someone from “bodily defilement”

We are all guilty of at least one or two categories, but within the whiskey business, the third last is prevalent – lies that harm no-one and help someone make a buck. But there is always harm to a lie, no matter how benign it is.

I can still remember the moment I realised Hyde Whiskey did not own a distillery. It was at a whiskey society meeting in Midleton to taste the soon-to-be-launched Mano A Lamh, and I got chatting to Fionnan O’Connor about some of the new brands popping up. I was still learning about whiskey and, in retrospect, I really hadn’t a clue. I foolishly assumed that if a whiskey said it was from west Cork, then that was where it was from. Fionnan pointed out that it was Cooley stock and was thus from about 200kms north of west Cork. I was confused – why would they claim to be from west Cork when they weren’t? Why would anyone bother lying about such a trivial thing? Surely you let the product speak for itself, rather than dressing it up as something else, right? 

A quick google brought me the information that I needed – Hyde Whiskey’s parent firm was Hibernia Distillers, a convenient name for a firm that had no distillery. Back then Hibernia was registered to an office in Blackpool (they since changed address to Innishannon, albeit it under the Irish version of the name). The Blackpool office was the same space occupied by a food marketing firm named Bullseye Marketing. Bullseye is owned by Conor Hyde, director of Hibernia Distillers. 

The whole concept of food marketing is an odd one – surely we shouldn’t need to have food pitched at us with some sort of goofy narrative? Wrong. Apparently we need our smoothies to be Innocent, our low sugar soft drinks to be split by gender into diet and Max, and for our whiskey to come with an entirely fictitious story that has no bearing whatsoever on the liquid within. This is because we are easily influenced by brand messages, and so it was that I learned the hard lessons of what Hyde Whiskey – and a lot of whiskey marketing generally – was about.

The bulk of the initial publicity for the brand placed Hyde No. 1, their first release, squarely in west Cork. The local newspapers were delighted to announce that the whiskey was produced in the region. But as any food marketing guru knows, ‘producing’ means anything from actually making to simply packaging.

As for their much touted ageing in west Cork, further scrutiny showed that Hyde actually only finished the whiskey in Cork for six to nine months. So for ten years, this Cooley single malt was aged in their facility up the country, and then, according to Conor Hyde, it was decanted into their sherry cask to be finished in west Cork for less than a year.

Herein lies problem number one – where is Hyde whiskey from? The first Hyde release spent ten years at Cooley’s maturation facility, then an alleged nine months in Cork. I would suggest that it is not from west Cork, nor is it of west Cork. It is a Cooley malt, plain and simple. But no-one wanted to take Hyde to task over this initial claim. Many whiskey bloggers are happy to get free samples and will regurgitate whatever you tell them to keep the booze flowing. Similarly, most people who work in the media have vague liberal arts degrees and are rarely experts in a single thing, least of all whiskey, so there are few journalists who would ask ‘are you sure this is actually from Cork?’

In the initial stages the Hydes put out the message that they were planning to build a distillery, but a quick check of the Cork County Council website informed me that this was not the case. They also claimed Skibbereen as their base, presumably because they used the warehouses of West Cork Distillers to finish their whiskey. However, with a brand like this which operates with so little clarity, who really knows.

Then there are the tweets. Photos of bottles of Hyde randomly sitting in fields around west Cork, with constant reassurances that the temperate air of west Cork was perfect for ageing whiskey. Unless it has the same climate as Taiwan – the secret to Kavalan’s success – I very much doubt that the alleged six-to-nine months the whiskey spent in temperate Cork had any impact, other than the fact it was in a sherry cask. Thus far, all of this was fairly standard whiskey marketing – create an illusion, lather, rinse, repeat. And then there was this tweet:

This was the point where I moved from seeing Hyde as just another whiskey brand to something else. It is a tweet with a screengrab of text attached – thus created in a two step process – so it is highly unlikely this could be written off as a typo, clerical error, enthusiastic marketing or anything other than a barefaced lie. It was later deleted when I asked where in west Cork their whiskey was distilled.

But I realised that it wasn’t just the whiskey that was coming with a backstory. In interviews in which Conor Hyde talked about how his family were vintners who owned a tavern. Unless he grew up in an adaptation of Dick Whittington, I would suggest his family were not vintners who owned a tavern – they were publicans who owned a pub. But this is the semantic quagmire of food marketing. Everything is handcrafted, artisan, bespoke, boutique, and craft; terms that have been rendered completely meaningless by marketeers. It is within these blurred lines that many brands operate, because they simply don’t want you to know much about what you are eating or drinking (other than what they tell you about it).

Hyde also tweeted this, presumably to illustrate their craft credentials:

 

They also deleted this tweet after someone pointed out that their product was previously owned by Beam Suntory. 

Then there were the interviews with Conor Hyde, such as this one from the Irish Examiner. Some samples:

So this is a limited, premium product?

We’re not going for high volume low margin.

We are going for a very premium, very top-end whiskey. We’ve spent a lot of time developing this in limited edition small batches, with very special wood.

So we’re trying to command a higher price point in the marketplace given the amount of tender loving care that goes into developing the whiskey before we sell it on the market place.

 

  • It’s a ten year old single malt, not exactly the holy grail of whiskeys. While there are many ten year old single malts that I love, Hyde’s is not exceptional, and is sold at a price point that is almost double what it should be. Also, ‘small batch’ is total nonsense as Cooley rattled out malt at a wicked speed in the biggest batches they could manage. This isn’t to say that their product is inferior – they made some cracking whiskeys over the years, but pretending they were some bespoke, boutique operation is misleading.

 

You just won the Best Irish Whiskey in The World award in San Francisco too?

I have to say that we are absolutely delighted to have won the award. It’s a very prestigious award.

The San Francisco Spirit Awards are the Oscars of world spirits. You have over 1,800 entrants from around the world and everybody strives to win an award at this competition.

You have some of the most respected judges from around the world too. These people are aficionados of whiskey, they know what they’re tasting. There were over 200 Irish whiskeys entered into the competition, so we were over the moon when we won.

 

  • Let’s put this one down to confusion on the part of the journalist (more of that later) – they didn’t win best Irish whiskey, they won best Irish single malt. Redbreast 21 took the top spot for Irish whiskey that year. As for the San Francisco World Spirits Competition – this is how they discern which is the best:

Producers must submit their product for the competition and pay a fee ($475 for 2013) for its evaluation. Not all entries are given awards (those not judged of sufficient quality are not given an award) but most receive a bronze, silver, or gold award from the tasting panel. The fact that most entrants receive an award likely involves some degree of self-selection, as the spirits producers choose whether to enter each of their brands in the competition and pay to receive a rating.

Like Feis Maitiu, almost everyone gets a medal. I’m sure the Apostle of Temperance would be delighted.

 

How do you break through into a crowded Irish whiskey market globally?

Well, we’ve positioned the brand as Hyde’s President’s Cask, so we are positioning it as a presidential quality whiskey.

It’s one of the best whiskeys to come out of Ireland as far as we are concerned.

We take so much time choosing wooden casks from all over the world to justify that positioning. We bring in empty Oloroso sherry casks from southern Spain, which are handpicked and very carefully graded. So then we take our whiskey, which has been maturing in bourbon casks for 10 years, and put them into the sherry casks for a further six to eight months. That’s what makes it so special and that’s what makes it such a premium product and so presidential.

  • Again, none of this makes Hyde whiskey special. In fact, it is all fairly standard. As for presidential, who knows what that is meant to mean, although given how Trump has risen to power using fake news and gaslighting, he might just be right. But this is my favourite bit:

So what makes Irish whiskey so different to any other?

People generally describe Irish whiskey as smoother whiskey. When you drink Irish whiskey you get a lovely warm glow inside your tummy.

With something like a scotch whiskey it’s a peated whiskey, which is made using a different technique.

They actually smoke the whiskey and you get that warm or hot sensation in your throat or your mouth just before it goes down.

It has a bit more fire in the mouth kind of feel to it. Whereas Irish whiskey is actually growing really rapidly around the world because it’s so smooth.

It goes down so easily and has a lovely mellow gentle finish to it as opposed to a more fiery finish that you might get with a scotch.

  • Now I am no expert, but this sounds to me like he either thinks he is talking to someone who doesn’t know a thing about whiskey (he possibly is) or he doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Disparaging Scotch with inaccurate claims about how they ‘actually smoke the whisky’ and that somehow it burns your mouth is bizarre and unhelpful. As for the ‘Irishness’ of the liquid – Hyde whiskey is actually closer to a Speyside whisky than anything – sherry finished, double distilled single malt. But at 70 euro a bottle, it is an overpriced, relatively dull Speysider.But however confusing and misleading that interview was, the best was yet to come. I heard the Sunday Business Post was doing an extensive feature on whiskey, so I picked up a copy. This was what greeted me:

That is Conor Hyde, who, once again, does not own a distillery, or a warehouse, or a maltings, or anything other than a brand. Why was he even included in the interview, along with people like John Teeling, Mark Reynier, Bernard Walsh and Peter Mulryan? These are people who chased this crazy dream of becoming distillers, putting their livelihoods on the line. How is he even on the same page as them?  There are many, many people in Ireland right now who are doing really interesting things in the distilling world, so why did the ‘they-actually-smoke-the-whiskey’ guy get a cover shot? But I’m delighted to report that the feature went downhill from there.

Here’s a shot of the interview so you know I’m not making this up.

Here is the transcript in italics, with a few clarifications by me:

One distillery taking that advice is Hyde Distillery in Roscommon, which was opened by Conor Hyde and his brother Alan in 2014.

  • At least it has one hell of an opening line. Hyde do not own a distillery in Roscommon or anywhere else. The only connection to Roscommon is the fact that former President Douglas Hyde – after whom the whiskey brand is purportedly named – was from Roscommon. It seems likely that this is what we in print media would call ‘a production error’. You might call it a fuck up. More on this later.

For Hyde, the key to good Irish whiskey is not so much in the distilled whiskey but the flavour imparted during the ageing process.

Like Walsh and Teeling, the Hydes spent a big chunk of their budget on selecting the right barrels for their whiskey to age in.

“Other potential entrants [into the whiskey industry] focus on manufacturing,” Conor Hyde says. “But it’s well proven that 80 per cent of the taste of whiskey comes from the wood.”

  • At least this has a bit more clarity, as Hyde are obviously less concerned with manufacturing.  This is because – once again – they do not own a distillery, warehouse, maltings or anything that has anything to do with actually making or maturing whiskey. Hyde also put a lot of effort into talking up the influence of wood on their website  – more on that later in a section titled ‘Plagiarism’.  If 80% of a whiskey’s flavour came from the cask, every whiskey would taste the same, as everyone buys casks from the same sources. To suggest that elements like barley, yeast, distilling itself and warehouse location have a mere 20% impact on the finished product is nonsense. Again, I’m no expert, but even I know that you are clutching at straws when you make a wild claim like that.

That makes it vital to select the right barrels and the right location for ageing, according to Hyde, who ages their whiskey in west Cork.

“It’s very temperate there,” he says, “which makes it perfect for ageing. It’s not too hot and not too cold. [In the barrels] the whiskey breathes in and out. When the wood gets cold, the whiskey retracts: when it gets hot, it migrates back into the wood. It’s that ebb and flow in and out of the oak that gives whiskey its flavour.”

  • Almost all of Ireland is very temperate. West Cork is no different. Exactly where in west Cork Hyde claim to finish their whiskey is a mystery – as I said before, I can only assume it was in the warehouses of WCD, but again, who knows. All we know for certain is that – once again – Hyde do not own a distillery or warehouses.

The Hydes’ whiskey sits in a variety of different barrels as it ages.

“We’re very much focussed on the finishing of the whiskey more than the distillation,” he says. “We put an awful lot of effort into sourcing unusual casks. We have dark rum casks from Barbados. We bring in sweet Oloroso sherry casks in southern Spain. We bring in Burgundy casks from the Cote d’Or near Dijon in France, [which is] very well known for the pinot noir wine grape. We also have your industry standard bourbon casks from Kentucky.”

It’s not cheap. A wooden cask can cost up to 800 to buy and ship, Hyde says, and the requirement to do due diligence is high.

“There are some dodgy cask sellers out there. You have to be careful with your wood.” This is to ensure it hasn’t been denatured by over-use.

  • Well, at least he is almost being honest by saying they focus more on finishing than on distillation, which is true as – and I’m going to keep drilling this point home – they don’t own a distillery or warehouses.  

Hyde Whiskey has won several awards for its whiskey and is exporting to over 18 countries, Hyde says, and it is well established in the US in particular.

“We’re in more than 25 states, and we have a full-time person on the ground in Chicago,” he says.

For Hyde, the start-up whiskey companies need to make sure that they nail those export markets properly.

“What you’re looking for is an exclusive exportation partner we could work with, who would understand and care for the brand, and position and market it as carefully as we would ourselves,” he says.

“Important advice to any brand: very carefully pick your distributor and importation partners in each country. They’re your representative on the ground, you have to trust they’ll do the right thing by your product.”

  • Uh huh. Distribution is important, yet, speaking as a consumer with zero links to the industry, I would say ‘not lying to the consumer’ is also important.

Hyde is in the process of distilling its own spirit, while it sells blended and aged versions of whiskey it has bought from other distillers.

“Our own probably won’t be ready for another year. Even then, we probably won’t release it for six years, because we have a high quality threshold,” he says.

  • There are two possibilities here – either Hyde are distilling by contract, whereby you pay a distillery to work from a mashbill you give them, then use your casks and age the spirit in someone else’s warehouse; or they are not doing that at all and this is more of the empty posturing that now seems to be part of the brand. If they are distilling by contract, then it is a shame that they can’t be upfront about it. But at this stage, Conor Hyde had passed a point of no return, and really couldn’t just say ‘we are independent bottlers and we are going to do interesting things over the coming years’. But the next part is the best:

His advice for other aspiring distilleries is simple.

“Making it is only half the battle. They have to all be cognisant that it’s not that hard to make whiskey – the hard part is selling and marketing.

  • “It’s not that hard to make whiskey”. It’s hard to underestimate how offensive this comment is – to barley growers, to maltsters, to distillers, to blenders, to just about everyone who works in whiskey. The obvious response to this outrageous comment is simply: If it’s so easy, why the fuck aren’t you making any? Why aren’t you doing this simple thing, rather than pretending you are? As for ‘the hard part’ being ‘selling and marketing’ – he isn’t entirely wrong. Marketing is a huge component of a whiskey’s success (or lack thereof), and it is precisely because marketing is such an all-consuming monster that we have ended up with Walter Mittys like Hyde Whiskey.

“Irish whiskey is only 5 per cent of the world market. We’re not going to go from 5 to 15, as projected in the next ten years, unless we’re strong branded quality products. The last thing we want to be doing is fighting ourselves on the world stage, with people undercutting each other’s commodity whiskey.”

  • Strong brands are important. So is honesty and transparency. As for ‘undercutting’ – if he means offering value for money, I would contend that consumers want value for money: If they don’t get it in the Irish whiskey category, then they will do what I do and just buy a lot of Scotch. I bought a 22 year old single malt from Linkwood for 55 euro on Master of Malt. Hyde No. 1 – a middle-of-the-road, ten-year-old single malt – is 60-70. It’s all very well to say we should all don the green jersey and arrange some sort of cartel, but consumers will get wise, just as they will get wise to the fact that almost all of the whiskey coming out of Ireland right now is from only three distilleries.  

On the day the SBP interview was published, there was an ensuing tweetstorm. First off was the claim that Hyde had a distillery in Roscommon. This was their explanation:

Saying they had ‘a distilery in Roscmom’ is a typo. Making a false claim like the one in the article either means that the journalist got it badly wrong, or he was lied to. This was the journalist’s bristling, unhelpful response to a query:

I’m going to assume that he simply got it wrong. Happens to the best of us, but usually you just put your hands up and admit it, rather than being snide.

In the flurry of tweets that followed, there were two opposing views, which largely sum up the entire debate around whiskey marketing. On one side, people involved in the industry – through marketing, sales, etc – defended Hyde, rightly pointing out that Jameson bottles still say Bow Street, Tullamore DEW says Tullamore, despite neither brand being made in those places.

On the other side of the argument were ordinary consumers who don’t like lies. This particular aspect of whiskey marketing and the ensuing row over it was brilliantly captured by drinks writer Sku in his analogous piece on cottage cheese. It simply asks – does all this detail about provenance actually matter? To many, it does not, but to me it does – I like to know where things come from, and I also think credit should be given where credit is due. Which brings me on to: 

Plagiarism

As I said, Hyde are pushing the wood angle, and their website has a large section devoted to their ‘intimate’ knowledge of casks and wood. Having worked as a copy editor and a copywriter, I learned to spot plagiarism. You can tell when someone copies and pastes work into their own – it lacks flow, and is disjointed.

When I browsed through Hyde’s extensive section on wood, it became immediately clear that it was lifted from somewhere else. I found the source, The Drinking Cup, and contacted Ben, the person who created it. He was terribly pleasant about their theft, even going so far as complementing what Hyde had done with his visuals, admiring how they had redesigning basic diagrams he sourced online and giving them new graphical life. But even though his work was open-source, he still sought a credit for his site, and contacted Hyde to ask for it. A few days later, an unsurprisingly small-batch credit was plonked in at the end of the text:

Hyde had lifted about 80% of Ben’s work with zero credit given. This isn’t just lazy, it is also stupid. To avoid this all they had to do was either put in a credit, or rewrite the copy, as they did for one of their other sections:

I never want to say any firm are ‘just’ bottlers – there is a fine tradition of indie bottlers like Cadenhead etc in the UK and in ten or 20 years we are going to need them here to create a vibrant whiskey scene for consumers. But Hyde have devalued the role of the bottler simply by pretending to be more. They don’t own a distillery, or a warehouse, yet they still send out messages like this:

There comes a point in this where I have to ask: Is it just me? Am I the only one who is bothered by this? Am I the only one who isn’t clicking his heels with joy at each new poorly disguised bottling of Midleton/Cooley/Bushmills? There is a lot of talk about a rising tide lifting all boats, but there is a difference between that and a tsunami of brands that lie with each breath they can muster. How many Irish whiskey drinkers in the promised land of the US realise there is no Hyde distillery? Or that every Irish brand save Dingle comes from one of the same three places? I can still remember when I realised Hyde were lying, and now, two years down the line, I clearly have not forgotten.

We talk about whiskey tourism – what if people want to visit the Hyde distillery? Or their warehouse? Or if an American tourist wants to visit any of the other brands who refuse to admit that beyond an office somewhere, they actually don’t exist? We need to get real. Putting out a sourced whiskey when you are trying to build a distillery is one thing – you have a goal, you are a bottler with a view to being a distiller. But if you are simply putting out a sourced whiskey, then you are an independent bottler and you need to accept that, work within it and be clear and straight with the consumer. Look at Lambay whiskey; at least they are trying something new – Cognac finish on sourced stock, with plans for island maturation. They got creative, rather than just talking shit at people and sending out misleading messages. 

You may be reading this and thinking that I am an angry jerk – which, by the way, I am – but I also care about the Irish whiskey category. People who understand whiskey are going to take notice of high-profile brands like Hyde, and what will they say? Well, here’s a few whisky writers, bloggers and journalists discussing the brand:

People are getting wise. Leslie Williams on FFT.ie made this point: “Looking at a bottle of say Hyde Whiskey or similar you would swear they had their own boutique distillery that has been operating for decades. I genuinely feel this is misleading and will come back to bite us if consumers feel they have been conned.  In Scotland and the US it is perfectly normal to sell whisky that has been purchased and aged somewhere other than the original distillery – honesty should be the key.”

But ultimately, what Conor Hyde has done is not that different from many others. He read the market and acted accordingly. He knew that if you had a distillery, your brand had more credibility. He knew place was important, so he chose west Cork for his narrative. He knew the brand needed a backstory so he co-opted Douglas Hyde into it. He did what many other brands do, but almost from the start, he went too far. And what has happened to him since? He has gone on to create an incredibly successful brand that is selling like hot cakes.

Augustine of Hippo’s list suggested that lying for material gain with no harm caused wasn’t that important. Whether or not there will be harm by this brand – and the many others following the same well-worn path of subterfuge and obfuscation – to the Irish whiskey category remains to be seen. But for me, and plenty of other consumers like me, we want whiskey and honesty in equal measure.

Forty shades of delicious

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

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

 

Brewing up a storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distillers of future past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scents and scent ability

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kith and Kinsale

You can be happily married, or you can live in Kinsale. That’s what I was told by a fellow traveller on Cork Whiskey Society’s expedition to the Folkhouse in the Cork seaside town. Kinsale is like Cork’s riviera, a playground for the rich and shameless, and, if my guide was right, a hotbed of wife swapping and French-style casual affairs. How exciting, I thought. Sadly, my trip to the south county was not in pursuit of whatever name they might have for dogging in a 60ft ocean-going yacht, but the equally aristocratic pursuit of quaffing Cognac. The Malt Lane whiskey bar in the Folkhouse was our venue, and Hennessy was our brand. I met two of the descendants of Richard Hennessy two years ago, but somehow on the night I managed to come away with no free bottles of booze (or ‘bribes’ as they are also known), despite two stylish chaps from the Maison stage managing the entire interview. Contrast LVMH’s stinginess with the generosity of Irish drinks giant Pern O’Ricard, who send me booze with such regularity that I think they might be trying to kill me. Well, as they say in the media, what doesn’t kill you makes you drunker. 

Brandy can be made anywhere in the world. Just ask Chip Tate, the maverick distiller behind the legendary Balcones Distillery, who after departing the Texan distillery and signing a non-competition agreement, is now going to make Texan brandy. Cognac, however, can only be made in the region of France that bears its name, and only using three grape varieties. They make a poor wine, but once distilled the liquid comes to life. I was surprised at how similar to whiskey the three expressions we tried were – there were differences, obviously, but nothing like my reaction when I first tried an Ardbeg and spluttered ‘what the fuck is this?’

We were guided through the expressions which went from the entry level VS, to the XO, and on to the Paradis, which costs about a grand a bottle, and which I presume is what they use to water their plants with in Kinsale. It’s very hard to be objective about anything when you are being bombarded with information about how exclusive and special it is – tastings with brand ambassadors tend to be about creating an aura around their product. The Paradis was a good drink, but to my mind, the XO was superior, and not just because I could actually afford a bottle without selling a kidney.

There was also a rare Hennessy Irish whiskey on offer on the night. Released for the Asian market, it was a Cooley NAS and probably didn’t do much to raise the profile of Irish whiskey overseas (not that Jameson Grace did any better). The packaging also incorrectly referred to Ireland as being ‘west of England’, instead of saying England is to the east of Ireland.

The evening also featured ‘posh pork scratchings’ AKA a cheese board, great pints, great bants and a minibus journey expedited by two bottle of Jameson Black Barrel. Another great event by the Cork Whiskey Society, not that you get that from my incredibly blurry photos: