The Corrections

There is something oddly Catholic about Non Disclosure Agreements, with their omuerta approach to supply – ‘you can have this, but you can never tell who gave it to you’. These common, legally binding documents meant that for many modern non-distilling Irish whiskey brands, a crucial element of a spirit’s identity was immediately out of reach for their marketing – the origin story was a secret, so they had to get creative. They looked to the biggest brands, saw what they were doing, and copied them. This, in turn, led to issues around our credibility at a crucial time in the category’s history, but much of that was a hangover from an era when we were struggling to survive. 

Just over a century ago, Irish whiskey was booming. The Scots were in the ha’penny place, we were kings of the spirit world. But times changed – there were wars of independence, world wars, economic wars, and ultimately a change in drinking tastes. Irish was no longer the whiskey of choice, and we entered an almost terminal decline. All over Ireland, distilleries were shuttered. Even the biggest Dublin distillers had to unite to survive – they joined forces, and soon the only operational distilleries were in the south in Midleton and in the North at Bushmills. 

But it was the former that had the most impact, as the consolidation of the old firms meant that you had brands like Powers and Jameson that called Dublin home but were being made in Cork. In the case of Jameson, the labels had Bow Street on them until it was changed late last year (the shops still have the Bow Street bottles in them). As the category struggled for survival in the Sixties and Seventies, historic brands were untethered from their spiritual birth places, and geography, provenance and home all became fluid concepts. 

To compound matters, John Teeling’s entry into the market with Cooley saw him sell whiskey to anyone who wanted it – this meant that all you needed to put out a whiskey was a brand. So we had limited sources, and many brands. In retrospect, it is little wonder that we ended up with issues around transparency, but it feels like that while the big three players were working out the technical file which governs how you can make whiskey, they might have given some time to coming up with guidelines for selling the stuff too. However, they were all in the business of third-party supplies, so why would they want to start schooling their customers on what to put on the label? But change has now come for whiskey in Ireland, in the form of an official guide from the Food Safety Association of Ireland, in conjunction with Irish whiskey producers. This moment was always going to come, and is a sign of our growing strength. Here, I’m going to offer my own utterly inconsequential thoughts on some of what lies within. 

After the intro and a lengthy explanation of labelling with regards to category, it moves on to marketing, which is where it gets interesting: 

It is important that any marketing materials (including labelling, claims made and/or terms used) are not false, misleading or inaccurate. The use of voluntary information should be considered in the context of legal requirements under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. Voluntary information is often used as part of the marketing of a spirit drink, where the information and terms used highlight particular messages and/ or attributes that the producer/brand owner wishes to convey to consumers, as part of the promotion of their product. Such information is often used as part of the labelling of the product itself; this includes statements made on the labels of the products themselves, as part of promotion on websites, and/or on other media formats. 

Voluntary food information In accordance with Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: Food information (including spirit drinks) provided on a voluntary basis shall meet the following requirements: (a) It shall not mislead the consumer, as referred to in Article 7 (see below) (b) It shall not be ambiguous or confusing for the consumer, and (c) It shall, where appropriate, be based on the relevant scientific data.

The guide then links to an existing document which goes back to 2011, which states: According to Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety (3) it is a general principle of food law to provide a basis for consumers to make informed choices in relation to food they consume and to prevent any practices that may mislead the consumer.

So there have been laws there to prevent shenanigans for some time, but whiskey isn’t the only category that needed to do some housekeeping in this regard – how often do we buy vegetables sold under fake Irish farm names that are actually imported goods? False provenance is an issue across the food and drink sector, but until every consumer has a moment of clarity when they suddenly realise that they don’t really know where their food comes from, things are unlikely to change. But back to Irish whiskey, and the FSAI guide: 

In accordance with Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: 1. Food information shall not be misleading, particularly: (a) as to the characteristics of the food and, in particular, as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production (b) by attributing to the food effects or properties which it does not possess (c) By suggesting that the food possesses special characteristics when in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics, in particular by specifically emphasising the presence or absence of certain ingredients and/or nutrients

On that last note, St Patrick’s were already hammered over their claims their spirits were gluten free – as all spirits are gluten free (their pushing of this aspect possibly has something to do with the fact that St Patrick’s started out as a food allergy testing firm). I’ll come back to St Patrick’s later. 

The first point in that section is the interesting one, mentioning that whiskeys should not be misleading in relation to country of origin or place of provenance. Now we are getting to the crux: 

Any statements on labels that would appear to give the impression of distilling where distilling is not yet taking place is not permitted. Any specific claims made on the packaging regarding where the product was distilled, matured or blended must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims. 

This is where we start to enter Irish whiskey’s twilight zone – building a brand to build a distillery. Releasing a sourced whiskey is a common way to raise capital for your planned distillery. Naturally, if you are creating a brand for your future releases, you name it after your future distillery. So you have a whiskey on the market that is named after a distillery that doesn’t exist (yet), or has no mature stock (yet). So how do you shoot straight with the consumer? Look at Tipperary Boutique Distillery and how they handled it – their sourced stocks are released under Tipperary Boutique Selection. The question then is – is there still a chance that consumers might think the whiskey within those releases is from Tipperary, when it is not? How do you counter that, or can you? What about Glendalough Distillery – they actually do have a distillery as they made a small amount of their own whiskey and then went on to create other spirits, and they also have a range of sourced whiskeys – should they have taken the word distillery off their labels until the stock in the bottles was 100% their own spirit? I don’t think so. It seems like this could hobble the development of distilleries. And what if you want to bring out a spirit named in celebration of some local beauty spot – if you wanted to release a single cask bottling under the name Carrauntoohil, is it reasonable to expect that consumers would know it’s a mountain and one that doesn’t have a distillery perched at the summit, or anywhere near it? Again, this is the sort of branding that wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t already have people claiming there is a distillery where there isn’t one.

Back to the guide: 

For example: ‘Distilled by St Mary’s Distillery, Dublin, Ireland’: This voluntary text ‘Distilled by’ could be understood to mean that the ‘whiskey’ was wholly distilled in this distillery. ‘Place of manufacture’ as defined in Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 means the place or region where the stage in the production process of the finished product which conferred on the spirit drink its character and essential definitive qualities took place. Consequently, ‘Product of’ can be used if distilling, blending or maturing of the product took place at the named distillery. 

This sets it all down in plain English. Don’t say it’s from a place that it is not from. If you know of any brand who is doing this, or who you think might be confusing consumers, contact the FSAI. On that note: 

Care must be taken with the use of brand names and company or trading names, which may be taken by consumers to be the name of a distillery (when they are not). For example: brand name – (X Distillery) with an address at St John’s Bridge. This statement could mislead the consumer, as they might think there is a distillery at St John’s Bridge, whereas, in fact, this could just be the brand name of the whiskey. Care must be taken when giving this kind of information, as this implies that the distillery is in a certain location that may not actually exist, and this could potentially mislead consumers, which would be in breach of Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. 

No mention here of the use of ‘distilling company’ as a term – as in the case of Kilbrin Distilling Company’s Kilbrin whiskey, which, the website told us, was from the parish of Kilbrin. I’ve pointed this out before but I’m going to do so again – there is no distillery in Kilbrin, nor are there any plans for one. The brand was cooked up by a subsidiary of Wm Grant & Sons. No consumer could be expected to know by looking at a bottle of the stuff that it wasn’t from Kilbrin, especially since the label also claims the whiskey was distilled and matured by the Kilbrin Distilling Company. This is bullshit. But rather than just make this point on the internet and get angry about it, I contacted the FSAI to see just how serious they were about sorting out this sort of shit. Within a week the branding on the Kilbrin site had changed to a more generic, less geographically rooted narrative (aside from the name, which stayed the same).  

Back to the guide, and a note on place: 

In the case of Irish whiskey products that use a place name as a sales name or brand name, it is important to ensure that any claims which specify where the product is distilled, matured or blended are accurate and do not confuse the consumer as to place of provenance.

This goes back to my earlier point about place names generally – is there an assumption on the part of the consumer that this is where the whiskey is from? Should whiskeys using place as an identifier offer clarity on whether the whiskey is actually from there? Again, if you are building a distillery in a specific place, then you more or less have to use that as your brand name. But if you are bringing out a whiskey with no plans for a distillery, or some vague plans to possibly build one in the future, then you need to make sure your whiskey has some connection to that place other than vague marketing concepts. And no, I don’t mean the local water used to cut the whiskey down. On the water-as-an-element-of-place move, the guide does include this: 

With regard to ‘spring water’, please note that Directive 2009/54/EC on the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters reserves the term “spring water” for a water that meets specific criteria. If an FBO wishes to use this term on their label, they must ensure that the water used meets the criteria set out in this legislation. (See Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/ EC for the specific requirements.)

This is from another part of the FSAI site: The requirements for a water to use the term ‘Spring Water’ are set out in Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/EC on natural mineral waters. Spring water is a description reserved for water which is intended for consumption in its natural state, comes from an underground source, protected from all risk of pollution and is bottled at source. Only very limited treatments are permitted. 

So they are even cracking down on the ‘local water’ aspect. Hallelujah. 

On to the use of official titles: 

Equally, any reference to the distiller must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims. The labelling, packaging, advertising or promotion of an Irish whiskey should not, having regard to the presentation of the product, create a likelihood that the public may think that the whiskey was distilled by any person other than the person who distilled it. A ‘master distiller’ is responsible for the quality of the product that a distillery produces and any reference to a ‘master distiller’ must reflect a person who has acquired such a responsibility and skill set. If using this phrase, the company must explain the meaning of this term bearing in mind Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011

I think the notion that you can put any name down as master distiller is a side effect of NDAs. Brand owners felt that if they were forbidden from putting the name of the person who distilled it, as it would then reveal where it was distilled, then they could put any name into that slot. Some were clever and used that space for ‘selected by’, some just stuck their own name in there. Avoiding this sort of faux pas really isn’t rocket science – just dress the label up like a distillery bottling but change some of the language. If you’re a bottler, you don’t need a master distiller. In a few years time, NDAs will be less common, and indies can release put a distillery’s name on the bottle, details about the cask, the year, the strength, so much detail that you won’t have room for the master distiller’s name. For the last few decades, we had a market dominated by massive entities with fuzzy logic on their labels (Bushmills’s establishment date being another great example) and a lot of newcomers who thought this was the norm.  I’m not saying the mess we had was inevitable, but I can see how it came about. Neither do I want to use a lazy generalisation by saying ‘everyone was at it’ but if you analysed every Irish whiskey label of the last 40 years, you would see how common these sort of fudges were. 

The guide rattles through a range of terms, rules, regulations and generally is worth looking over. While the action taken on Kilbrin gave me great hope that they were reining in the nonsense, I was positively clicking my heels when I saw that the FSAI and IWA were tackling St Patrick’s Distillery. Fun fact – St Patrick’s Distillery have been in existence for five years now and they have never distilled, as they don’t have a distillery. The have a dusty gin still, and that’s it. To be fair to St Patrick’s, they do state that they source their whiskey, but the fact remains that they don’t explain that all their spirits are made elsewhere, and that they call themselves a distillery when they are not. They got dragged over this recently in the Irish Times

When contacted, the company said it made no secret of the fact that it bought “new-make whiskey” from other distilleries and then aged the product in oak barrels by the sea.

“Our view is that the character and personality of a whiskey comes from the barrels it’s been matured in and the location where that ageing takes place,” the company’s general manager Cyril Walsh said.

We don’t claim to be a distiller but the legal name of the company is St Patrick’s Distillery and our international trademark is St Patrick’s Distillery,” he said, noting that the company was primarily an exporter with growing sales in the US, China, Russia and Canada.

The emphasis there is mine, because my jaw is still on the floor from when I first read that. But the second line is also worth noting, because this notion of over there is central to much of this. Irish whiskey’s market is overseas. The USA is the kingmaker for an Irish whiskey brand, but there are other places. So a certain amount of what went on was fuelled by the notion that people overseas would not rumble what we were up to – Kilbrin is a great example, as when I contacted the FSAI, they weren’t aware of the brand at all, because it seems to be solely aimed at the US market. So there was this idea that the poor foreigners need not know that the placename on the label has fuck all to do with the whiskey in the bottle. Spoiler alert: It’s a small world, and the internet has made it very easy to click a few links and see through this sort of nonsense. I am hearing more rumblings about tourists coming here expecting to find distilleries where there are none. Any brand out there who is selling sourced whiskey with a view to building a distillery needs to make that journey part of the brand – make sure your consumer is informed about your hopes and dreams; help them believe. That way they won’t show up at your lock-up wondering why you only have a forklift and pallets and nary a glimmer of copper to be found. 

It is still early days in our resurrection, and while there are still operations like St Patrick’s ‘Distillery’, they are fast becoming outliers – the FSAI labelling rules are there, and they are being put to use. Whiskey is quite a confusing world, and it’s up to people in the know to inform those who might not be au fait with NDAs and the multitude of other factors that make provenance such a minefield. In ten years time, none of this will matter – distilleries will be up and running with maturing stocks, but for now it helps to have people who love Irish whiskey and who understand how it works to ensure people don’t get misled. You can download the guide here, and you can contact the FSAI here: https://www.fsai.ie/makeacomplaint/.

Coull runnings

Kerry is Ireland at cask strength. As a Cork man, it pains me greatly to say anything nice about our neighbours to the west, but The Kingdom is a place of raw and startling beauty. Obviously there is a danger here of over-romanticising it, engaging in some noble savage mythos with proto-fascist symbolism of pure mountain air and fresh faced natives, as though anywhere with a population of more than ten thousand is a place of corruption and filth. So Kerry is beautiful, and in its rugged persuasions, it is not unlike Scotland. Which might make moving from one to the other a smooth transition, if not an immediately logical one. 

Michael Walsh has a bright future ahead of him. After taking a job in the new distillery in Dingle back in 2012, at a time and in a place where there was little employment, he learned the craft on the job, and became head distiller. But we are now in the middle of the boom, and the time was right to move on – and so he did, becoming head distiller at Boann in Drogheda as they get set to make whiskey. This obviously left an opening in Dingle, a distillery that has mature whiskey (mature in comparison to those who came after, if not in comparison to those who came before), a great reputation and the special aura that comes from its remarkable location and the fact it is the first point in Irish whiskey’s most recent timeline. But master distillers can be hard to come by – few claiming the title in Ireland would have more than five or six years experience, unless they work for one of the big guns. So the latest announcement from Dingle about who they have appointed is even more startling. 

Glen Moray Distillery is in Eglin, in the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland. It’s a great little distillery with great output – solid, bang-for-your-buck whiskeys with a side order of experimentation. Their master distiller, Graham Coull is one of the more engaging voices in whisky Twitter, shooting straight about the workings of a distillery and speaking his mind plainly. The son of science teachers, he undertook a chemistry degree in Edinburgh University before working with Wm Grant in Kininvie, Balvenie and Glenfiddich as distillation manager, before going on to become master distiller in Glen Moray. His no-bullshit approach means that he should really fit in in his new role as master distiller of Dingle Distillery. 

And now for some personal thoughts – my inital one being, ‘fucking hell’. Coull has been with Glen Moray for 15 years, and is not just leaving his distillery, and his homeland, but a solid job in a big company (Glen Moray is part of La Martiniquaise, which is owned by French drinks billionaire Jean-Pierre Cayard, who does not like publicity). 

There is an excellent profile of Coull on Scotchwisky.com, where he offers this telling quote: 

I like age statements, but I’m not precious about them. You can get a six-year-old in a first-fill cask which is better than a much older expression in a refill cask.

Dingle is in a NAS holding pattern right now, but soon it will be coming of age – over the next four years it will be heading into ‘entry level ten’ phase, and then looking beyond. That ten-year point is like graduation – you have a ten year old that be carried in supermarkets alongside all those other tens in Tesco. You have something that ordinary consumers will be interested in, provided the price is right. Up to this point Dingle’s NAS releases have been in tiny batches with a sizeable price tag. I would hope that this will be a little better balanced in future, as Glen Moray was an excellent value-for-money whisky. And while Dingle currently has that special aura, if it is going to complete on the world stage it will need to engage in a little experimentation – Waterford is coming out of the blocks in the next 12 months, as is PJ Rigney’s grand cru whiskey, so really, there is some stiff competition. 

Coull’s move here is an exciting development – and an endorsement of just how boomy our boom is becoming. All that said, he still has to wrestle with single pot still, which one Irish distiller eloquently described to me as ‘an absolute cunt to make’. So best of luck with that Graham!

I’ve no doubt the Coulls will get a céad míle fáilte here, and seeing what they do with Dingle is going to be really interesting. But man, good luck to them dealing with that Kerry accent.

Blue blood and brown spirit at Powerscourt Distillery

Powerscourt Waterfall.

There are three key strands to any whiskey marketing campaign. First, there is place; your water is the cleanest, your loch is the coldest, your warehouses are kissed by the sea, your home is where the hearts are.

Then there are the people; tales of founders, their ancestors, coopers, barrelmen, distillers, gaugers, bootleggers.

Finally, there is the product – the wood, the copper, the yeast, the liquid gold. Given the importance of the liquid itself, you would think that product should come first, but the stories that are easiest to tell, the ones that capture our hearts, are not the ones about the liquid, but about people and place, and how they interconnect. 

I

For all its aristocratic beauty, there is an air of gothic doom about Powerscourt House. Once home to the Powerscourt Conferences, when people of God would gather to discuss unfulfilled biblical prophecies, it has survived being almost completely destroyed by fire, and decades of decay. The stunning gardens are even home to a pet cemetery – this is Brideshead, revisited by Stephen King.

But any of the great houses will have their share of tragedy, of highs and low, for they have existed for centuries, with Powerscourt House dating back to 1741. But it has bounced back, with a thriving marketplace within the house, bustling tourist trade, and now, in its most recent addition, a distillery. At a time when there are distilleries popping up across the country, Powerscourt Distillery is not only impressive because of the size of its operation, but because of the pedigree of the project. 

Two local entrepreneurs, Gerry Ginty and Ashley Gardiner, initially approached one of Powerscourt’s current owners, Sarah Slazenger – a descendant of the sporting empire’s founder and current MD of the estate – about opening a distillery on the grounds of Powerscourt. It was the perfect venue – incredible scenery, a steady flow of tourists, abundant arable lands, and centuries of history. Slazenger was in, but there was an opportunity for another investor, and this time they got one was an impressive background in whisky.

II

Alex Peirce was halfways through his veterinary studies in Edinburgh when he discovered that he was allergic to animals. During some large animal training he suddenly puffed up and struggled to breathe. This would mark the end of his career as a vet. He was crestfallen, but coming from a family of entrepreneurs – his father Mike was a founder of Mentec, which played a central role in Ireland’s tech boom – Alex was quick to reroute into studying economics, consoling himself for his veterinarian Catch 22 by drinking a lot of the local spirits – ie, high-quality scotch. Then, in 1995, his father became one of the primary shareholders in the Isle Of Arran Distillery off the coast of Scotland. 

Alex Peirce and Sarah Slazenger.

With Pierce The Elder’s experience in Arran, and the pedigree of the proposal Ginty and Gardiner had put together, it wasn’t long before Powerscourt Distillery was ready to join the ever-growing list of new Irish distilleries. So they had vision, they had location, they had money, they had experience. But they needed one final piece of the puzzle – a master distiller. There are many distilleries in Ireland, and many of the newcomers have either distillers, or head distillers, but very few have bona fide master distillers. The pressure was on Powerscourt Distillery to get someone who would live up to the pedigree of the project.

Master Distiller Noel Sweeney in Powerscourt Distillery.

Having had experience of making neutral spirit in one the state alcohol plants, Mayo man Noel Sweeney joined John Teeling’s legendary Cooley Distillery – itself formerly another one of the five state Ceimici Teoranta plants, along with Carndonagh, Ballina, Carrickmacross and Letterkenny – in 1989. 

Qualified in analytical chemistry and total quality management, he was mentored in Cooley by a Scottish distiller named Gordon Mitchell, who later went on to work for the Peirce family on Arran in 1995. Teeling’s Cooley Distillery was a game-changer in Irish whiskey – up until then, Irish Distillers Limited owned the only other distilleries on the island, in Bushmills and Midleton. Nowadays, IDL are a picture of support for newcomers, back then, they were less so, with Sweeney recounting one attempt being made by IDL, then headed by Richard Burrows, to buy Cooley so they could bulldoze it into the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the competition authority blocked that deal, and Cooley continued to disrupt – they double distilled, they made peated whiskey, they sold to whoever wanted it, and they made excellent malt and especially excellent grain whiskey. But consolidation is the way for distilling – especially when a boom strikes, as one has in the past five years in Ireland. 

Cooley distillery was sold to Beam in 2012 for more than seventy million. In the aftermath, Beam cut off supply for third party sales, and created a vacuum, one that was soon filled by John Teeling, who set up Great Northern, a sort of Cooley Mark II.  Sweeney was still with Cooley, but was looking for a new project. At this point, the Irish whiskey boom was punching through the stratosphere, so it was only a matter of time before someone headhunted Sweeney – he was inducted into the Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017, a title held by only two Irish distillers to this day. So when the Powerscourt team came knocking, he was ready for a new challenge. 

III

With Sweeney on board, the group were able to secure stock from what they coyly refer to as an undisclosed distillery. NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, are the unfortunate contracts that forbid mention of what distillery you source your stock from, but the spirits released by Powerscourt – a ten year old grain, 14 year old single malt and a blend – all bear Sweeney’s name as master distiller, because, as the man himself says, he is the person who distilled them. You can tell, because the grain whiskey has that soft, sweet element that Cooley – and Sweeney in particular – did so well. 

“In Cooley we used fresh bourbon barrels for an excellent smooth grain whisky. It’s creamy – a nice introduction to whiskey. Lots of vanilla, citrus – this is not any way harsh. Fercullen ten is finished in first fill bourbon. I made it, watched it for nine and half years, bought it and watched it for another six months. Well, Alex and Sarah bought it and I watched it.” 

The location of Powerscourt Distillery is enviable – centuries of history, remarkable scenery, and a torrent of tourists coming for all the estate offers – the big house, the gardens, the garden centre, and the five-star hotel which is also located on the grounds. 

Then there is the team: With Sweeney, they have more than just an excellent distiller – they have a seasoned communicator, a man plugged into the world whiskey network, and knows who has the best barrels and how much you should pay for them, and who also brought some of his excellent sourced stock to keep them ticking over while their own stocks mature. It is hard not to be impressed by the sheer quality and strength of Powerscourt Distillery.  

Powerscourt Distillery is also offering a cask programme to would be investors – Alex Peirce sees it as more of a club rather than a purely transactional entity. With asking prices of 7,600, and only 397 casks (honouring the 397 foot high Powerscourt waterfall) this will be a somewhat exclusive club. 

Peirce is quick to point out that this distillery isn’t about building a business and then flipping it – they are in it for the long run, and a sign of how serious they are is seen in the fact they are not bothering with any intermediary spirits to bring in revenue over the next five to ten years.  With the Irish whiskey boom showing no signs of slowing down, and this project’s accumulated wisdom, skill and prestige, Powerscourt – from the great house to the still house – look to a brighter future together. 

Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey (RRP€42), Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey (RRP €55), and Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey (RRP €90) will be available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, and at selected outlets country wide. 

A million photos from the launch night last December:

And now for my Jerry Springer-style final thoughts: There is no doubt that Powerscourt is a force to be reckoned with. In the years to come, there will be some distilleries that will fail. I doubt that Powerscourt will be among them. Into the future I expect them to replicate an Arran-style operation here – rock-solid, quality whiskey, with interesting finishes and an abundance of class. But can they excite? That’s the big question. Operations like Blackwater, Waterford, even WCD in their quiet way are doing things different, and those are just three close to where I live. Not everyone can reinvent the wheel, and while a distillery that is dependable is a great thing, it will be interesting to see how Powerscourt stands out. It is very much to the manor born, but it may need more than lineage to capture hearts and minds in a crowded market.

Here be dragons

The meeting of Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I (a later illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793)

Grace O’Malley lived – this much we know. The full facts of her story exist in the space between history and folklore, the former telling us that she was a ruthless warrior, a veritable Daenerys Targaryen, but with boats instead of dragons. The latter tells us that she was a pirate queen, oft portrayed in the buxom pastels of a swashbuckling bodice-ripper, and described using patriarchal terms like feisty and headstrong. Whichever version you subscribe to, O’Malley, or Gráinne Mhaol, or Granuaile, was an outlier – a woman of power in the late 1500s, a time when women had no power at all. 

Born into the Irish aristocracy, O’Malley was surrounded by men with names like Donal The Warlike and Iron Richard, but stormed her way to power in defiance of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. O’Malley was fighting against more than British tyranny when she commanded her warships – she was fighting against the death of Gaelic rule, a battle that she would never win. Her death in 1603 marked the passing of an old order, and the start of a new Ireland, for better or worse. 

Stephen Cope speaking at the launch in Howth Castle.

Stephen Cope knew he was onto something when he trademarked Grace O’Malley’s name. As the former MD of Lír Chocolates, the Mayo man understood that Brand Ireland isn’t just about quality food and drink, it is also about storytelling, and that this is a nation overflowing with stories waiting to be told. With whiskey sales accelerating, a plan was hatched to release a whiskey that told the story of O’Malley. 

Stefan Hansen loves rugby. He played it professionally in his early years, and still dabbles a little, on and off the pitch. When he was 23 he realised that if he was to become a full-time pro, he would have to leave Germany, and probably never return. So he chose his homeland, and another path, forging a successful career in a global advertising firm, eventually breaking away with his friend Hendrick Melle to found private equity investment company Private Pier Investment and Private Pier Industries. The two had some brand experience with Ireland, via a pet food firm named Irish Pure, but they understood that Irish produce was respected around the world for its excellence. The trio set to work building the Grace O’Malley brand, but they needed product. They were looking for mature stock in the middle of a whiskey boom, when everyone is looking for mature stock. 

John Teeling is famous for being the teetotaller entrepreneur who democratised Irish whiskey, but he is also a rugby fanatic. When the O’Malley team sailed into the boardroom of Great Northern Distillery to talk shop, it ended up being a 45-minute deep dive into rugby lore, with Hansen and Teeling rolling back the years. As the meeting ended, the actual business of the day was casually mentioned – the O’Malley crew were seeking whiskey. Hansen asked for a large amount of mature stock – of both excellent quality and age. Teeling said yes. The deal was done, and Grace O’Malley Whiskey was out of dry dock. They then brought in Paul Caris of drinks consultancy Alteroak. Caris, a Frenchman who works with gin and brandy producers, set to work on the whiskeys, aligning the different age statements with cask finishes, and arranging the releases in three distinct categories. 

The top level is the Captain’s Range: These are all 18 year old single malts, non-chill filtered and without E150a; the first is exclusively bourbon cask, limited to 900 bottles and retailing for 349. There are also 450 bottles of this released at cask strength, and these retail for 649.  The Amarone cask finish edition is limited to 450 and is €449, while its cask strength edition is limited to 250 bottles at €799.99. The 450 bottles of cognac cask finish are €399.99 each – the Amarone and Amarone Cask Strength are available to pre-order on the site now. 

The prices seem excessive, but the team says that they are limited releases and they have also based the pricing ‘on an independent chemical analysis of the composition and objective quality of the distillate’.  They also say the pricing also reflects Caris’s involvement; while they also claim the wood barrels – Italian, Jamaican and French – are the absolute best provided by Caris’s company. The firm also says the finishing – ‘fresh and wet’ –  is unique and they are only able to do this through Caris’s sourcing knowledge and links to the top wine and cognac makers. Cynics might say that the buyer would need to be fairly fresh and wet themselves to splash out 800 on a bottle of 18 year old single malt, but this is a booming category and premiumisation like this was inevitable. 

Some booze at the launch.

Fortunately, for the steerage passengers among us, there is the mid-range Navigator whiskeys – the Dark Char and Rum Cask blend, and the Dark Cask blend, both priced at €64.99. The Crew Range will be the entry level whiskey which will be a blend launching in June with an RRP of €39.99.  This is a blend of 40% triple and double distilled single malts and 60% grain whiskeys of varying age statements up to 10 years old. They will also have a Heather Infused Gin – RRP €42.99 – in their Crew Range and a Golden Caribbean Rum. 

There are plans for a maturation facility on the west coast, and the trio are estimating that they will be generating €6m in revenues within five years. There are no plans for a distillery – the Grace O’Malley brand is going to be independent bottlings, with an eye to bonding in the future. The brand is launching across Europe, but as with so many Irish whiskeys, America is the promised land, where the brand hopes to appeal to the 33 million people who claim Irish ancestry. 

Stefan Hansen, Stephen Cope and Hendrick Melle

With its character-driven narrative you could write this off as a novelty release, and some of the imagery used in the campaign doesn’t do a huge amount to dispel this unease:

However, this is a brand with something for all palates (and wallets); entry level to super premium, blends to well aged single malts. Leather bound bottles make it eye-catching to the average consumer, while those limited numbers on the high end bottles will appeal to collectors. The team behind the brand are keen to celebrate the strength of their links to Great Northern Distillery, but going forward this may need to shift – the idea of independent bottlers is that they are independent, and bottle from multiple sources. It may be hard to convince the whiskey nerds of the value of your brand if all you can offer them is repackaged Cooley/GND. There are others out there building indie bottling brands based on a broad range of distilleries and expressions. But these are early days for the O’Malley brand, and the team are putting in the hard yards on building that identity. 

The narrative is on point – they held the launch in Howth Castle, where in 1576, when O’Malley was refused access to the castle, she took the occupant’s owners relative hostage until they were forced to allow her entry, and as a result, a place at the table is always set for her. Perhaps to balance the all-male team team behind the brand, they are sponsoring a yachtswoman who happens to be a descendant of O’Malley. Westport native Joan Mulloy took part in the 50th La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro Race, which sailed into Irish waters for its Kinsale stopover in June. Dubbed ‘the Tour de France of the Ocean’, Mulloy and her co-skipper raced under black sails emblazoned with the name of her ancestor. Having been the first Irishwoman to compete in La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro last year, Joan’s ultimate goal is to compete in the Vendee Globe, a solo round-the-world-race in 2020. Joan will represent the brand in a number of events and special challenges, including a trip later this year retracing the route of her ancestor who sailed from Clew Bay to London for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. With their supply line secured, and the wind in their sails, the Grace O’Malley line of drinks are heading into relatively uncharted waters – that of indie bottlers in a rapidly developing category. Unlike Grace, history is on their side, whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

See https://graceomalleywhiskey.com/ for more. Below are some photos from the launch.

If you are still reading this, there is an excellent piece by Charlie Taylor in the Irish Times that goes into a lot of the real nitty gritty of the brand, ie, not a load of conjecture and hyperbole like the above.

Indo col 105

I sometimes joke that if our house went on fire, the first thing I would save is the computer. I usually qualify this by explaining that obviously, I would drag people out first, but of the personal belongings, the computer would be the only one worth running back into a burning building for. This isn’t because I want to erase my browsing history, but because I want to save our family history. The transition to digital photographs means that the last 15 years of our lives are recorded on the harddrive of the kitchen computer, and just as my parents generation said they would save the photo album from a burning house and little else, I would risk life and limb for those 60,000+ images.

If I could give you one piece of parenting advice, apart from the obvious ‘don’t have kids’, it would be to go and buy a decent camera. When my parents were young, photos were a luxury, like having your portrait painted. Then cameras got cheap, and photos equally so. Then, once phone cameras became slightly better than an Etch A Sketch at capturing moments of our lives, we just gave up on cameras, and on good quality photos generally. Sure, we are snapping away at everything we see – meals, homeless people, road traffic accidents – but it is purely for our social media channels, to posture on Insta, to virtue signal on Twitter, or to horrify on WhatsApp. Photos of our kids all seem to end up on Facebook, in fact Zuck’s black hole consumes 136,000 photos a minute, with more than 300 million photos per day being uploaded to the site. This is all well and good, but as we change phones almost annually, Facebook has become our photo albums – a worrying thought when you realise that someday our world will be rid of it, and all your photos might go too. Good luck explaining to your kids that the reason you don’t have any photos of them is because when society finally fell to the fake news zombie armies, nobody was left to run the servers and the internet collapsed. I mean, you won’t have to tell your kids that because we will all have died of preventable diseases that came back because of morons on Facebook telling us vaccines are making us addicted to fluoride, or something. My camera is an entry level DSLR. It only needs to be entry level because the photos most people are throwing onto Facebook are so bad that I look like Ansel Adams in comparison.

Most people baulk at the idea of paying three or four hundred euro for a basic DSLR, but think nothing of throwing down a grand on an iPhone simply because it has a camera that is almost as good as a DSLR.  The photos I take serve two purposes – they are a visual record of a hectic life, when days can run into each other, years whip by and memories become muddled. They also serve to reassure me that I am getting some of this right. You can say, well maybe if you just existed in the moment and enjoyed things, rather than obsessively recording them, you might feel better about your attempts at life. Perhaps, but there will come a point where memory fades, and having a record will matter. I scroll back through the albums on the computer and realise that I haven’t got everything wrong. It’s like a compilation of my greatest hits, because nobody takes photos of the arguments, the sleepless nights, the worries – our photos are all perfect moments (with the exception of the ones taken by the four year old of his brother mooning) – chips and seagulls at Knockadoon, chasing after mara in Fota, bobbing about in a boat somewhere off the coast, all smiles and laughter. It’s like Rappaport’s Testament in Primo Levi’s Moments Of Reprieve: “While I could I drank, I ate, I made love….I studied, I learned, travelled and looked at things. I kept my eyes wide open; I didn’t waste a crumb. I’ve been diligent; I don’t think I could have done more or better. Things went well for me; I accumulated a large quantity of good things, and all that good has not disappeared. It’s inside me, safe and sound. I don’t let it fade, I’ve held onto it. Nobody can take it from me.”

So get a camera, take nice photos, bear witness to your life; record all the things your kids won’t remember and you will someday forget, store them where they are safe, and for the love of god, check the batteries on your smoke alarms.

The monster mash

What is single pot still whiskey? Is it the past, is it the future? Is it a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, an Irish Irish whiskey, a category within the category? Is it our secret weapon, or is it a marketing trick? Is it a common style, found around the world, a simple mixed mash spirit, a dumbed down single malt?  It is a bastard malt, a mongrel? Is it a testament to Irish ingenuity and a spirit born of oppression – is it a flower that grew from ruins? Is it all these things or none, and, most importantly, is it the next step?

When I think single malt, I think of Scotland. There are many exceptional single malts from around the world, and many mediocre ones from Scotland, but it is still there – a century of marketing has linked the concept of the single malt to one nation above all others. But once upon a time they used a mixed mash too. As single pot obsessive Willie Murphy noted, there is this quote the second edition of Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing:

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tax on ale, beer and whiskey (which was still referred to as aqua vitae in all statutes of the period) was essentially doubled, and it was estimated that this provision would yield £384 000 in revenue (Statute 1661, Car II, c.128). To raise this huge sum there must have been several large legitimate stills in existence, such as those of John Haig & Co., who claim that a Robert Haig established their business in 1627 (Anon., 1914). What is interesting, from a technical viewpoint, is the fact that these taxes were imposed not only on malted barley but also on spirit ‘not made of malt’. Other chronicles of this period similarly allude to spirit being made from a mixture of grains, such as oats, barley and wheat (Smith, 1776) as well as malt. So even from the earliest times some whiskey was being distilled from unmalted grain, and not all malt was made from barley. The malt tax introduced in 1701, for example, states that duty shall be paid: ‘upon all Malt, ground or unground, whether the same shall be made of Barley, or any other Corn or Grain whatsoever’ (Statute 1701, 12 &13 William III, c.5).

That Smith they are referencing is none other than the father of capitalism Adam Smith, him of ‘greed is good’/Gordon Gekko fame. In the brutal tome more commonly known as The Wealth Of Nations, Smith notes:

Malt is consumed not only in the brewery of beer and ale, but in the manufacture of wines and spirits. If the malt tax were to be raised to eighteen shillings upon the quarter, it might be necessary to make some abatement in the different excises which are imposed upon those particular sorts of low wines and spirits of which malt makes any part of the materials. In what are called malt spirits it makes commonly but a third part of the materials, the other two- thirds being either raw barley, or one-third barley and one-third wheat.

Smith wrote that back in 1776, and then there’s this from super sleuth Charlie Roche:

So before single malt knew what it was, it was a mixed mash whisky not unlike our own supposedly uniquely Irish style.

Single pot still can never compete with single malt, but it can become something else. There are obviously obstacles, because it’s not just a complex whiskey, it is also a complicated one. Referring to it as a mixed mash whiskey is actually a welcome simplification – single pot still is a confusing name, as it reflects not the style, nor the key element of the mashbill, but rather the device used to distill it. Also, as they are not allowed to call it ‘pure pot still’ anymore, it now sounds like it is only distilled once, or made using only one still. For consumers approaching the SPS category for the first time, there is a lot of baggage to get your head around. Then there is the requisite explanations of the corn laws, because every whiskey should come with a history lesson that focuses on taxation of grain. But SPS has genuine heritage, and this is where it gets even more complicated.

Peter Mulryan knows a thing or two about whiskey. He went from writing books on the subject to being the public face of Irish Distillers Ltd SPS promos and is now the driving force behind Blackwater Distillery. Mulryan has blogged about his dissatisfaction with the technical file – the document that controls what Irish whiskey is and how it is made – and has started making pot still whiskey from old mashbills, as the more recent rules mean that SPS is what IDL say it is. Mulryan notes that in all the old historical SPS mashbills he has come across, not one meets the standards set out by the technical file.

Published five years ago, the technical file was written by the large whiskey producers in Ireland at a time when a boom was looming and the finer points of the category needed to be locked down. The result is a document defining SPS to suit IDL’s in-house style – imagine if Diageo legally declared that Guinness is the only style of stout allowed by law, which, quite frankly, sounds like exactly the kind of thing Diageo would do.  

You can read the file itself here, or David Havelin’s excellent dissection of it here and here, but IDL’s influence is all over it, including references to SPS being made ‘usually in large stills’ and even allowing for a little bit of column still distillation in there, which is clearly a gob in the face of history. But SPS as a style was resuscitated and kept alive by IDL, so little wonder that they felt such a sense of ownership over it that they simply went ahead and redefined it.

And just so I can play devil’s advocaat, I would make this point – it has been five or six years since the big producers sat down to write the tech file, and a lot has changed. Grain has become a major talking point, with words like provenance and terroir becoming part of the global discussion, so one more question before I launch into an actual whiskey review – is it not possible that IDL themselves would change the technical file definition of SPS, given how restrictive it is? Are their hands not tied by the file, now that they have a micro-distillery where they can compete with the likes of Blackwater? Would they not wish to loosen the ball-gag on SPS and let it breathe a little? Is there not an archive filled with old mashbills in Midleton, recipes for pot still whiskeys of yore that could be resurrected and released in tiny batches, little pieces of history brought alive and offered to the world as part of a celebration of our heritage? Perhaps, perhaps not. But until they do, we have Midleton’s interpretation of SPS, ahistorical as it may be, and hey, it isn’t all that bad.

At a Redbreast masterclass at Whiskey Live Dublin in 2017, attendees were given a gift – a sample of Redbreast 21-year-old bottled at cask strength. I, being both antisocial and impoverished, was not in attendance, but John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan was there, and through a circuitous route that involved Omar ‘That’s Dram Good’ Fitzell smuggling the sample up from Kerry, I managed to get my paws on a generous portion of this fabled whiskey (a 100ml sample of it sold at auction for more than a hundred euro earlier this year).

And so to some notes on this rarest of birds:

Nose: Hello again, chocolate, tobacco, leather, raisins, and for SPS Redbreast bingo, Christmas cake in a glass, complete with marzipan and brandy butter. Pear drops and camphor, roasted banana, flambé crepe with Nutella. It’s cask strength, but you genuinely wouldn’t know it – this is about flavour, not strength.

Palate: Really reminiscent of the Dreamcask, so much so that it should really become an annual, relatively affordable release – flog 300 of these for 250 a pop one day a year, g’wan. Up front there is more fruit, those JR ice-lollies from the Eighties, rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding; it is dark, rich, deep, like meself. There is a lot of toffee, fudge, dark chocolate, hot chocolate with a drop of Baileys in it.

Finish: That zesty snap of the SPS spice fades slowly, and again a lot of notes reminiscent of the Dreamcask, that bergamot, the sweetness, the leather and tobacco wafting. A beautiful whiskey, and one that deserves to be shared with the world (stocks permitting). Is it automatically better than the standard 21? Not really. It’s great, but to me that 21 is the gold standard for Irish whiskey, SPS or SM or SG or blend or vatted malt or anything. It is accessible, widely available and an absolute beauty. That said, the 21CS could easily be the match of the Dreamcask, especially if it was released at a reasonable price and in a fashion that didn’t become a flipping free-for-all.

Aside from all my grumbling about the technical file, and the fact that it could do with some significant edits, if there is a way to open hearts and minds to our unnecessarily complicated indigenous style, then Redbreast is it. Forget the youthful SPS of Dingle, Teeling and impending ones from Great Northern, or even the multiplicity of well-aged Powers single casks, ain’t nobody got time for that. To hell with the Spot family, beautiful as they may be, because they are an even more confusing pitch than Redbreast. The smart money is on the priest’s whiskey. Redbreast was my epiphany, and look at me now, friendless and alone, writing sprawling thinkpieces on a minor category of whiskey. So here’s to our grains of future past, and to single pot still whiskey, whatever it once was, and whatever it may become.

Update 29/04/2019: Irish Distillers Limited have published a piece by Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett, the man who kept that single pot still flame alive for so long, and it goes into a lot of detail about the whys, hows, and wherewithals of the technical file. Well worth a read.

Pearse Lyons

After the passing of Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech a year ago, I wrote this tribute piece for FFT.ie:

Dr Thomas Pearse Lyons was a man who looked beyond the surface. Many business empires are built on marketing and spin, but Dr Lyons, a consummate scientist, spent his career looking deeper into animal nutrition, brewing and distilling. His death on March 8 left behind a vast empire, with a business that employed more than four thousand people in ninety countries and spanned agrifoods, brewing, and distilling – a fitting legacy for a man who had an endless thirst for knowledge, and a mind like a razor.

Thomas Pearse Lyons (1944-2018) grew up in Dundalk. One of six children, his mother ran a grocers, and it is she who he credits with his drive and entrepreneurial spirit. Aged just 14 he started working in the laboratory of the local Harp Brewery – his parents were both teetotallers, but on his mother’s side he came from five generations of coopers to the great distilleries of Dublin.

On the insistence of his mother, he studied biochemistry in University College Dublin. Later,  in 1971, he received his Phd in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham, after which he worked for Irish Distillers, playing a pivotal role in the design of the new Midleton Distillery, a facility that was to become central to the battle to save Irish whiskey from annihilation during the lean years of the 1980s.

But while his education and experience in Ireland and the UK laid the groundwork for his success, it was in America that he achieved his most remarkable feats.

Emigrating to Kentucky in the 1976, he worked with local ethanol distillers to help improve their processes. After four years, he finally made the move that would define his life’s work, and, using a loan of 10,000, he started a company in the garage of his house.

At this stage he was married to Deirdre, and they had two young children, Mark and Aoife. It was a risky move for anyone, but especially someone who is married with a young family. The company, Alltech, specialised in animal nutrients, and in its first year it turned over a million dollars.

As the value of his company soared, he diversified into brewing and distilling, as well as authoring a number of texts on the subjects. He became involved in philanthropy, building laboratories for schools, and helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake in 2010. While he was a well-known figure in the US, back home he was less well known, save for appearances in annual rich lists. It seemed a shame that one of our great success stories was not as celebrated in his native land as he was in the US – but all that was about to change.

The Irish whiskey category was booming, and Dr Lyons stated to consider bringing his brewing and distilling skills back home. In 2013 he started to search Dublin for somewhere to build a distillery. His choice of location show just how he was able to see beyond the surface – a dilapidated church in the Liberties, the spire of which had been removed. Although the site had a rich history that went back centuries, in recent times the site had been left to decay, with the church itself being used as a lighting showroom. There were other site he could have chosen – places less expensive to build, with less heritage and fewer complications – but he did not shy away from a challenge. A complete rebuild and restoration of the church and its surrounds saw the billionaire spend some 20 million euro creating the Pearse Lyons Distillery At St James’s, complete with stained glass windows showing the saint after which the church was named, and one of Dr Lyons’s cooper ancestors. Opening last September, it is a fitting monument to a man who blazed a trail in the sciences and in his many philanthropic work.

As with any business leader, it can be sometimes hard to get a sense of who they are. Dr Lyons always cut a dash, with his dickie bows, sing-songs and boundless positivity. For a man who was able to look beyond the immediately visible, his death leaves you wondering what drove him to achieve all he did.

There is of course, a very simple answer: Family. His family was built into his success from day one – Alltech takes its name from his daughter, Dr Aoife Louise Lyons, while its signature colour was chosen by his son, Dr Mark Lyons. Mark and Aoife are senior members of the firm. Dr Lyons’s wife Deirdre is director of corporate image and design, and even designed the stained glass windows in St James’s, while she also oversees Alltech’s philanthropic works worldwide. Speaking about his wife upon the opening of the distillery, Dr Lyons said: “The builders said that they loved working with Deirdre because she never changed her mind. Never. She has the vision of what she wants to do. I think this is what makes us a formidable team. It’s telling our story. It’s history.”

Dr Lyons’s death on March 8, 2018 from a heart problem, marked the sudden end to a remarkable life. His son Mark said in a statement: ““He saw farther into the horizon than anyone in the industry, and we, as his team, are committed to delivering on the future he envisioned.”

Dr Pearse Lyons will be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to science, to business, and to making the world a better place. But beyond the empire he created, it is his dedication to his family is the most inspirational aspect of his life – he looked beyond the horizon, but he never forgot that family was life’s most important work.

Alternative Ulster

I can still remember the first time I read Vice. It was a 2009 Babes of the BNP piece that summed up their ethos – sleazy, funny, and cruel. From the get-go I loved their skate-punk nihilism and cartoonish approach to journalism – a mix that that saw them become the go-to resource for disenfranchised twentysomethings. Long before Buzzfeed attempted to bludgeon our attention spans to death with listicles, Vice was the face of a new kind of journalism, one that sparked a debate about what journalism actually is. But whether old media liked it or not, Vice was here to stay.

Ten years on from when I first lolled through their skewering of the BNP, this brilliant long-form dissection of their history shows how they are no longer the crazy punks they once were – they are a massive global media brand, and as such they jettisoned questionable founders like Gavin McInnes, brought in questionable investors in the form of Rupert Murdoch, and sprouted many wings, including Virtue, their advertising agency. The landing page for Virtue shows just how they’ve changed, boasting lines like this one:

Rather than try and fix the agency model, we’ve planted a jungle on its grave. Our DIY punk roots, empathy, and irreverent sense of style breeds work that’s as important as it is attractive.

I read that and all I can hear is the Canyonero jingle, as this is exactly the kind of guff that Vice used to eviscerate. But we all have to grow up sometime.

The greatest trick Vice managed to pull off is maintaining that edgy chic despite their world-conquering position, so it is little wonder that when one of the world’s biggest drinks firms, Proximo, wanted something with bite, they hired Virtue (Jameson went the more direct route with sponsored content on Vice itself). Of course, the only problem with massive firms hiring edgy creatives in order to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of millenials is that massive firms don’t really want edgy – they want safe, and cool, but mainly safe. And this brings me to the new Bushmills promo.

Their heads are practically glowing so strong is the dye they used.

We don’t usually see a lot of TV spots for Irish whiskey here. Our market is in the States, so that is where we aim our advertising spend, and also guides our creative choices. This is why a lot of Irish whiskey ads tend to be a version of Irishness that really does not exist, rooted in a past that never was. Just as The Quiet Man was Maurice Walsh’s daydreaming about a place that didn’t exist, most of the imaginings of Ireland we see in US-based ads are selling a never never land of shirtless youths and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Obviously, Proximo wanted something different.

They tasked Virtue with creating a more modern whiskey promo for the tragically-named Red Bush, the new Bushmills expression aimed at the American market –  the ‘Irish whiskey for bourbon drinkers’. Virtue got one of their shining stars, Jessica Toye, to create something cool and edgy and safe. She explains her motivation thus:

While other whiskey brands show Ireland as a caricature of itself with rolling green hills and tweed suits, we immersed people in the Ireland unseen – the gritty streets of Belfast.

I can only assume this ‘green hills and tweed’ comment is a dig at one of the best Irish whiskey ads of recent years, Tullamore DEW’s The Parting Glass. The multi-award winning advert is a masterclass in emotional manipulation with a comedic twist. Yes it is twee, yes it has tweed, and yes it features many rolling hills and even has Ireland’s greatest natural resource – rain – in copious quantities; but it has wit and it has heart, and despite the fact it was made by a London ad agency and was almost never screened on Irish TV, I still see it as one of the best Irish whiskey ads. It is so good that its premise was flipped a couple of years later by two German film students who made the stellar Dear Brother as a spec ad for Johnny Walker.  

But obviously making an ad for Tullamore DEW is a little simpler than making one for Bushmills. As a pitch, the Tullamore DEW brand comes with limited baggage – it is a mix of whiskeys from Bushmills and Midleton, and it is owned by a Scottish firm, but nobody would claim it wasn’t Irish – Tullamore is right there in the dead centre of Ireland.

Bushmills is something else – either Northern Irish, or British, depending on who you are trying to argue with. Irish whiskey may be the category it belongs to, but good luck claiming Bushmills is Irish. But how do you get that message across, if you even want to? How do you retain that magic brand of Irishness, without obscuring the fact that the distillery is in the UK?  

The Red Bush promo had a limited range of options as it has to be set in Northern Ireland – a relatively small place, with only a few globally recognised landmarks. This means you can go film crashing waves and rustic charm around the Giant’s Causeway, or you can go urban and feisty in Belfast. Bushmills is seven minutes from the Causeway, and an hour from Belfast, but if they wanted something modern and fresh, they would have to go urban. And so they did, with something Toye’s website describes thusly:

With a pack of 16 Irish red heads running fearlessly through the streets, RED. SET. GO. reflects the feeling of drinking Bushmills straight. The calm before the first sip, the rush of blood coursing through your veins, and the feeling of freedom with nothing in the way.

It’s all very well to trash ‘tweed and green hills’, but don’t follow it up by using the least accurate stereotype of all – that Ireland is overflowing with red-haired people. Scotland has 13% of the world’s population of red haired people, with Ireland in second place with 10%. Perhaps this places Belfast – with its heady brew of Ulster Scots and Irishness – in the eye of a perfect ginger storm, but given the divisions between those two communities, I’m assuming not.

But the real bravery of Toye’s advert comes not from eschewing rolling hills for cobbled streets, but taking a brief associating anything red with anything in the North. Belfast’s streets have literally run red on enough occasions in the past that even contemplating the concept of Red.Set.Go was a bold move. Or perhaps I am overthinking it – after all, the first thing that came to mind when watching the promo was Alan Clarke’s punishingly bleak Elephant, one of the best films about the Troubles. Perhaps America doesn’t know, nor care, about all this history, or what Ireland – North, south and everything in between – is or is not.

I will let the press release fill in the rest of the dead-eyed, joyless details:

Created and produced by Virtue, VICE Media’s celebrated creative agency, “RED. SET. GO.” depicts a fresh, young, real version of Ireland by following a pack of Belfast locals from dusk to dawn on a lively night out, with RED BUSH in hand. The red-hued anthem immerses viewers in the Ireland unseen. Set in Belfast’s alleyways, underground raves, tunnels and cobblestone streets, the :60 spot is backdropped against the gritty and intoxicating single “Louder” by Kid Karate. The ad showcases this group en route from one destination to another, because truly great nights are about the moments in-between and the anticipation of what’s next.

“The next generation of whiskey drinkers craves real experiences and honest brands – we made ‘RED. SET. GO.’ for them,” said Jeffrey Schiller, Brand Director of BUSHMILLS Irish Whiskey. “For so long, Irish whiskey has been about tall tales and green plastic hats on St. Patrick’s Day, so ‘Irish-ness’ has almost become corrupted. We want to show America the real Ireland, and what better Irish whiskey than BUSHMILLS –Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery – to show the way.”

“With ‘RED. SET. GO.’ we want to show the raw and electrifying Ireland that sets us apart from the romanticized vision of the country that is far too often portrayed,” said Jess Toye, Creative Director at Virtue. “The sounds, the set, the people represent the real Belfast and convey the excitement and energy of the city.”

Ah yes, the real Ireland and the real Belfast. Two places not on any map, as no true places ever are. Except obviously, this ad captures nothing of the city and could have been filmed in almost any city that had a few cobbled streets, or even on a soundstage.

A scene from the ad in which you need to ask – why girls kissing? Why not two guys?

My disappointment with this ad is ultimately part of my despair around one of the great distilleries on this island. Bushmills is a victim of centuries of geopolitics, bounced around from caretaker owner to caretaker owner, with no-one quite understanding what they are meant to do with the place, or how to handle the complexities of identity, culture, and economics in the North. This ad is symptomatic of the policies of remote control have held both Bushmills and the North back – administrative powers that were removed from any sense of place or culture making decisions that assume too much. And as for the liquid it is pitching, I’ll leave the reviewing to someone who knows more about whiskey and the North than I ever could.

Lemony snippets and a series of unfortunate pre-event leaks

I have no idea where Cork Dry Gin is made. I assume Midleton, but I’ve never heard anyone from there talk about the stuff. Perhaps this is because the brand is just so jaded that no-one can be bothered to mention it, especially when all the chatter these days is about whiskey. But gin is huge – especially small gin, from boutique producers. So if anything is surprising it’s that it has taken this long for Midleton to produce another gin.

The microdistillery in Midleton is the perfect source, being the boutique-y-est string to Midleton’s mighty bow, and so it is that the new gin is being released under the Method & Madness label. We know this because an offie in the North blew their wad and uploaded the info about a month before the launch date.

And so it is we have this confusing puddle of product info:

At Method and Madness, we bottle the very best. We expertly blend the smoothest cream and the finest gin and just a hint of lemonyness and Irish gorse flower to create the most exquisite, velvety gin. Served straight from the bottle or draped over ice, Method and Madness Gin is a taste of Midleton Distillery you’ll never forget.

A delicious combination of black lemon,Irish gorse flower and Method and Madness gin.

Victorian cream gin was more like a liqueur – effectively an Irish cream with gin instead of whiskey – whereas the more modern iteration sees cream used as botanical rather than being added directly. Going by the clear liquid in this M&M release, this is the modern style. – Update – there’s no feckin’ cream in this:

Gorse – or furze, or whins if you’re Scottish  – produce small yellow flowers that smell like coconut. From the Wildflowers Of Ireland site:

‘Get a few handfuls of the yellow blossoms of the furze and boil them in water. Give the water as a dose to the horse and this will cure worms’.  

From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC 782:356 From Co Kerry.

There’s also a well-know country saying : “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”.

So an aphrodisiac that also cures worms. My prayers have been answered.

Black lemons are black, but are not lemons. They are dried limes, and are used in Persian cooking. So you have local hedgerow botanicals, exotic fruity spice, and cream. Should be interesting. Unless the unwitting leak was in fact a false flag designed to discredit dickheads like me who practically soiled themselves in their rush to share it on social media. The presence of the word ‘lemonyness’ suggests it might be.

Anyway, here is the lemony fresh press release that clears up some of my seemingly innate confusion:

Irish Distillers has unveiled METHOD AND MADNESS Irish Micro Distilled Gin; a bold step into the modern premium gin market and the first release from the Micro Distillery, Midleton. The new METHOD AND MADNESS release pays homage to the historic links to gin in County Cork and underlines the company’s commitment to experimentation and innovation.

Bringing together the experience and expertise of Midleton’s Masters and Apprentices, METHOD AND MADNESS Gin is the result of an exploration into historic gin recipes from 1798, which have been preserved at Midleton Distillery, and months of research into how botanicals work together to create unique flavours in gin.

Overseen by Master Distiller, Brian Nation, and Apprentice Distiller, Henry Donnelly, the gin has been distilled in ‘Mickey’s Belly’*, Ireland’s oldest gin still first commissioned in 1958, at the Micro Distillery, Midleton. The new release benefits from an eclectic fusion of 16 botanicals led by black lemon and Irish gorse flower – imparting notes of citrus and spice with subtle earthy undertones. METHOD AND MADNESS Gin is bottled at 43% ABV and is available in Ireland and Global Travel Retail from March 2019, at the RRP of €50 per 70cl bottle, ahead of a wider release in global markets from July.

To inform the creation of METHOD AND MADNESS Gin, Brian Nation and Henry Donnelly consulted with Irish Distillers Archivist, Carol Quinn, to understand the rich history of gin production in County Cork. In the 18th Century, Cork was a mercantile city and a centre of production for gin and rectified spirits. Merchants such as the Murphy family, who founded Midleton Distillery in 1825, imported a rich variety of spices and botanicals to which distillers had access. In the 1930s, Max Crockett – father of Master Distiller Emeritus, Barry Crockett – created the first commercially produced gin in Ireland, Cork Dry Gin.

A notebook kept in the Midleton Distillery archive dating back to the 1790s, written by a rectifier in Cork called William Coldwell, details the recipes, botanicals and methods that informed the creation of Irish Distillers’ Cork Crimson Gin in 2005. A premium pot still gin, Cork Crimson Gin provided the primary inspiration for Brian and Henry in reimagining the recipe for METHOD AND MADNESS Gin over the past year.

Henry Donnelly, Apprentice Distiller at the Micro Distillery, Midleton, commented: “It has been an incredible journey over the past year in pouring over our historic gin recipes, consulting with our Master Distiller Brian Nation and trialing different recipes in the Micro Distillery to bring METHOD AND MADNESS Gin to life. Midleton and Cork are steeped in gin heritage, so to be able to combine the knowledge and tools of the past with the skills of the present to create a gin for the future has been a real honour.”

Brian Nation, Master Distiller at Midleton Distillery, added: “The release of our METHOD AND MADNESS Gin represents the next chapter in the story of us re-writing what a modern Irish spirits company can be. Through our work with the Apprentices at the Micro Distillery, Midleton, we continue to innovate and experiment with different grains, distillation methods and spirit types and look forward to sharing our creations with the world in the coming years. As a Cork native myself, bringing the spirit of premium Irish gin back to the city has been a personal highlight – and one that I look forward to enjoying being a part of for many years to come.”

Brendan Buckley, Innovation and Specialty Brands Director at Irish Distillers, concluded: “At the very core of METHOD AND MADNESS is a commitment to push the boundaries of what we can achieve in Midleton Distillery, and I believe that taking a confident leap into the modern premium gin category is the very definition of this mindset. Many new producers in Ireland are releasing gins while their whiskeys mature, but we are in no terms late to the party – in true METHOD AND MADNESS style, we are entering the gin market using our passion and unrivalled distilling expertise as our guide.”

First unveiled in February 2017, METHOD AND MADNESS aims to harness the creativity of Midleton’s whiskey masters through the fresh talent of its apprentices. Taking inspiration from the famous Shakespearean quote, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t’, METHOD AND MADNESS is designed to reflect a next generation Irish spirit brand with a measure of curiosity and intrigue (MADNESS), while honouring the tradition and expertise grounded in the generations of expertise at the Midleton Distillery (METHOD).

*Mickey’s Belly is named after Michael Hurley, a Distiller at Midleton Distillery for 45 years. Michael Hurley worked in the Vat House at Midleton. He worked for Irish Distillers for 45 years, beginning his career with the Cork Distilleries Company where he was employed as a clerk in the Morrison’s Island Head Office. He then transferred to the watercourse Distillery where he worked for 6 years before coming out to Midleton. A Customs official or ‘Watcher’ named Dickie Cashman gave the still the nickname ‘Mickey’s Belly’ in his honour. It too had come in from Cork to work in Midleton.

METHOD AND MADNESS Gin Tasting Notes by Master Distiller Brian Nation

Nose: Lemon balm and shredded ginger with a unique flavour from the wild Irish gorse flower

Taste: Spicy pine and notes of earthy woodland frost balanced with a burst of citrus

Finish: Clean and long with a lingering rooted orange citrus and slowly roasted spice

I’m at this thing today, so will post 10,000 images from it later on. Til then, some thoughts: Another gin in a crowded market. I assume IDL have done their homework and see that there is the demand for a new gin, and at least under the M&M brand they can release and shelve if it doesn’t gain traction. Also – another notebook? I have no doubt that there is an actual notebook or ten in those archives, but as this is the second release to come from ye old fifty shades of grain, I’d wager you will be good for one or two more before drinkers get a little sceptical. Finally – that is one beautiful bottle. I look forward to falling into a case of them today. On that note: Let’s get facked aaaaaaaaap.


The wits of yeastwick

I am posting this press release because A) I want to seem like I have a clue about yeast and B) I would like to get on the free beer gravy train. Don’t you dare judge me.

O’Hara’s Brewery has collaborated with Tullamore D.E.W. to brew the limited edition ‘Irish Wit’. The beer is a take on the classic Wit style and is brewed using 50% wheat malt, flaked oats, local ale malt and fermented with Tullamore D.E.W.’s own yeast.

The collaboration was based on the idea of designing a beer specifically to pair with Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey.   

Seamus O’Hara, founder and CEO of O’Hara’s Brewery commented on the collaboration,

“Usually when we think about working with an Irish whiskey it’s for our award-winning barrel-aged series but this time we’ve done something a little bit different and novel. While not as common in Ireland, the idea of pairing a beer with a whiskey is nothing new, in fact I’ve found that Tullamore D.E.W. pairs particularly well with our Irish Red Ale. When the possibility of collaborating with our good friends at Tullamore D.E.W. came up we considered the idea of a barrel aged version of our Irish Red, but then we thought why not try to create the perfect beer to pair with Tullamore D.E.W.? How could we collaborate outside of simply using Tullamore barrels?

“When the opportunity arose to work with the Tullamore D.E.W. yeast, we jumped at the chance, and once we decided this was the route we were going to take, it was obvious that a wit style beer would best show off the yeast and evoke some of the fruity and spicy notes typical of the whiskey, while at the same time allowing us to keep the ABV at a manageable 4%, perfect for pairing with a glass of Tullamore D.E.W.”

Kevin Pigott from Tullamore D.E.W. echoed Seamus O’Hara’s sentiments,

“Our belief is that the blending of cultures, thoughts and ideas creates a world infinitely more interesting. We were super excited to work on this collaboration with O’Hara’s to create the perfect beer that pairs with Tullamore D.E.W. and we achieved just that. The beer is a Belgian wit style with an Irish twist, appropriately titled Irish Wit. It is a limited edition small batch where we wanted to reinvigorate the art of the boilermaker. Tully and beer are good friends and good friends always meet over a good drink.”

The Brewing Process:
O’Hara’s take on the classic Wit style is brewed using 50% wheat malt, flaked oats, local ale malt and fermented with Tullamore D.E.W.’s own yeast as part of a mixed culture fermentation. 


The Look:
Dark amber colour topped off with a white head. 

The Aroma:
A complex and full aroma bursting with sweet orange and zesty lemon notes.

The Flavour:
A mix of sweet and dry with strong citrus flavours of orange followed by hints of lemon, banana and grapefruit leading to a clean and refreshing mouthfeel.

The Food Pairing:
Some might like it hot, and this Irish Wit certainly does, pairing particularly well with spicy dishes, seafood, shellfish, and also offsets the clean saltiness of a Greek Salad perfectly. If you are serving the beer with a cheeseboard, it works best with goat’s cheese or feta.

Irish Wit will be available in select independent bars, off-licences and retailers with a RRP €2.55 for 33cl bottle.

Style: Wit Beer

ABV: 4.0%

IBUs: 15

Plato: 10°

Best served: 6-8°  

Fermentation: Top Fermentation

Availability: 33cl bottle, 30L keg

Arrivederci, Royal Oak

Bernard and Rosemary Walsh back in the day.

Bernard Walsh always strikes me as a hail-fellow-well-met-kind-of-chap. He has built an incredible brand in Walsh Whiskey, and then went on to build an incredible distillery in Royal Oak in Carlow. This makes this news all the sadder, as watching any relationship fail – be it personal or professional or both – is never easy.

FILE PHOTO FROM 2013: Augusto Reina, CEO, Illva Saronno, Bernard Walsh, Founder of Walsh Whiskey Distillery, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton TD, Rosemary Walsh. Picture by Fennells.

WALSH WHISKEY & ILLVA SARONNO AGREE TO DEMERGE JOINT-VENTURE

Whiskey brands and distillery businesses split with immediate effect and without redundancies.

The Directors of Walsh Whiskey Distillery have decided to split the business by separating out the existing drinks brands business, built on the Writers’ Tears and The Irishman premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys, from the distillery business at Royal Oak, in Ireland’s County Carlow.

Current sales, marketing and distilling objectives are being fully met, however the Irish and Italian Directors differ on how to develop the combined business into the future.  

This change will result in the Irish directors taking full control of the existing drinks brands business built on the Writers’ Tears and The Irishman brands that are among the most popular premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys in the world being sold in 50 countries worldwide. Consumers of Writers’ Tears and The Irishman portfolio of brands are assured of their uninterrupted availability. This business will continue to trade under the name Walsh Whiskey.

FROM 21-06-2016 – Walsh Whiskey Distillery at Royal Oak in County Carlow (Ireland) which was officially opened Tuesday 21 June. The €25 million distillery has an annual capacity of 650,000 cases of whiskey. It is unique amongst independent Irish distilleries in being able to distil all three styles of Irish whiskey – pot still, malt and grain.” Pictured at the opening were The founder of Walsh Whiskey Distillery, Bernard Walsh and Augusto Reina, Chief Executive of Illva Saronno SpA of Milan (owners of drinks brands Disaronno and Tia Maria) which has a 50% share in the Walsh Whiskey Distillery at Royal Oak. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Illva Saronno will take full ownership of the distillery, which is renamed “Royal Oak Distillery”. Illva’s objective is to further enhance Royal Oak as a centre of excellence in Irish whiskey making by continuously improving its technology and processes, producing all three styles, Malt, Pot and Grain under one roof, enhancing the visitor experience and achieving recognition as one of the best quality Irish whiskey producers in the market.

There is an in-depth piece on WhiskyCast that shows how hard this must be for the Walshes – they built this brand from the ground up, and, in 2013, finally achieved the dream of building a distillery. That said, what they walked away from is nothing in comparison to what they walked away with.

I’m not going to eulogise Writers Tears again, but I love that whiskey in every way – the bottle, the design, the name, the liquid, the concept. But it isn’t the only ace the Walshes now hold –  the whole parcel includes a range of 12 Irish whiskeys under the Writerṣ’ Tears and The Irishman brands, the Hot Irishman Irish coffee and The Irishman – Irish Cream liqueur. Walsh Whiskey has well established supply deals with powerhouse distilleries, a strong distribution network, and a bright future.

The Italians now have a beautiful distillery and a great team – but no brand, and no real identity. Bernard Walsh was the face of the distillery, and they will struggle to replace either him or the brands he created. Perhaps they will be happier building their own brand to their own spec, but the vacuum left by the severing of the relationship will not be easy to fill. It’s going to be an interesting few years in Royal Oak.

Key whiskey trends for 2019 or possibly never

It’s that time of year when we look at trends for 2019. Actually, that time of year was about two months ago, in a different year, but I was busy then, so it has taken until now to get this done.

Predicting drinks trends is a risky business – do you play it safe by saying ‘markets will continue to struggle’ or ‘millenials are ruining everything’, or do you go all out and tell the world that agave/rum/armagnac/fermented CBD oil are going to be huge this year? I have no idea, as I am a 43 year old man sitting alone in his kitchen in a cardigan with a gas heater on. Trends, or fashion, or fads, or anything remotely resembling relevance are a foreign land to me. But I can tell you what I am excited about, or interested in, and what I hope to see in the Irish whiskey category this year.

Expansion: More distilleries, more indie bottlers, more everything. After some struggles, even the Moyvore Whiskey Vault got the go-ahead. There is a fantastic write-up by the ever-reliable Whiskey Nut about a meeting in the initial planning stages which shows just how much silliness had to be overcome, with ‘what if terrorists attacked it?’ being one of the more memorable NIMBYisms. It showed how hard it would be for any smaller distillery to get planning for warehousing on any scale. Fun fact: One of the chaps behind the Vault is the director of Writech, which did all the fire safety wiring for the colossal Midleton revamp, and you can see Writech’s timelapse video of the Garden Stillhouse being built here:

The Moyvore project means you can distill under contract, age the whiskey elsewhere, and not be worried ageing the barrels in your garage and watching them turn your azaleas black. It opens up great possibilities – now you just need a distillery, and not ten acres of warehouses that need 24-hour surveillance. Obviously, ‘just’ a distillery slightly understates the seven to ten million euro you need to actually build one and get it running before you even start production and then wait three to ten years before you can start making money. But hey, every little helps.

The Great Irish Whiskey Drought: Lads tis going to be worse than Black 47, there won’t be a cask older than three years left in the country. Or not, depending on who you ask. The question is – can the current supply of mature stock carry us to the point where we no longer need sourced as a lifeblood of new distilleries? I’m going to assume that with the boom at Bushmills, the answer is yes. Or at least, yes with an asterisk. And that asterisk is Brexit.

In 1996, Supervisor Leland Yee, left and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, center, pour several bottles of Bushmills whiskey down the drain in front of the Dovre Club, an Irish pub in San Francisco on March 17, 1996. Brown and Yee were joined by a small crowd from the pub celebrating St. Patrick’s Day to pledge their support of a world-wide boycott of Bushmills in protest of what they claim are discriminatory hiring practices in the whiskey’s plant in Northern Ireland

Brexit: Back in 1996, Willie Brown, the then mayor of San Francisco, poured a bottle of Bushmills white label down a sewer in the city. Brown was protesting what he said were Bushmills’s sectarian hiring policies, and called for a boycott. Irish Distillers Ltd, who owned Bushmills at the time, pointed out that while the town of Bushmills’s population was almost entirely Protestant, 27% of the staff in the visitors centre were Catholic, which given the demographics of the town, was a lot. It didn’t really take, and the line about Antrim’s finest being ‘Protestant whiskey’ stuck all the way to The Wire – as though Jameson was somehow a Catholic name.


Naturally, one year after after the San Fran demonstration, a DUP Alderman named Ruby Cooling started a one-woman boycott of Bushmills because the distillery sponsored Antrim GAA, which at that time did now allow members of the security forces to play for them. IDL had to explain that they sponsored many sports, not just GAA, but it didn’t matter, because this was the bad old days of the North – you simply could not win. We have moved on so much that it is hard to remember just how shitty it was. But now, thanks to Brexit, it would appear the UK wants to drag the North back to those bad old days.

Even in the early stages of Brexit you could sense that the goons leading the charge were looking to co-opt Bushmills into their mad rampage, with Andrea Leadsom back in 2016 droning on about ‘Northern Irish whiskey’ making Britain great again. I am very excited about NI whiskey, and I really hope that we can see it becoming a distinct Irish whiskey region, with a unique style and attitude – for it is a unique place with a unique identity – but right now the category to be with is Irish whiskey, not NI whiskey. But if that border goes back up and trade gets complicated, the fallout for all-island Irish whiskey could be sizeable. Consider how much sourced stock used here to fund the building of distilleries comes from Bushmills, or how much grain spirit goes from Midleton to the North; how much Irish whiskey is sold in the UK, how big whiskey tourism here could be for whisky lovers in the UK, or the border issues facing anyone who comes to Ireland and hopes to visit all the distilleries, North and south – the potential repercussions are endless. In short, fuck Brexit.

Wood: In Scotland, you legally need to mature whisky in oak. This means you can use any kind of wood, as long as it’s oak. Here, it has to be wood, usually oak. This allows us to bend and break boundaries, explore new flavours and cross-pollinate with other fields. Waterford were straight out of the traps with experimentation, using casks of Andean oak, wild cherry, chestnut, and acacia – a wood that Bushmills used as a finish on their distillery exclusive, while Midleton used native oak in Dair Ghaelach. Cask finishing is always going to be big, but here we have a chance to get really wild. So wood is big news, but not as big as grain.

Grain: When I was a child, there were no potatoes as adored as the Ballycotton potatoes. Each year my parents would excitedly bring home a bag of the Ballycotton new season potatoes, and spend meal times discussing how great they were. There was no marketing or branding; this was pure flavour. The spuds from Ballycotton were simply better – growing high on the headland behind Ballytrasna strand, the soil was kissed by the sea air, battered by the odd raging storm rolling in off the Atlantic, and nurtured by a farmer who knew what he was about. Ballycotton potatoes are still highly prized; there is simply something about where they are from that makes them superior – the sea, the soil, the sky. The Irish may not have a word for what made them special, but the French do – terroir. Coming from the wine regions, it is a way of describing how the unique environment of each vineyard produced a different flavour. But this isn’t about grapes or potatoes, but rather barley.

Irish whiskey does not legally need to be made with 100% Irish barley, and grain spirit is made from imported maize, so there was no onus on Waterford Distillery’s Mark Reynier to use Irish grain. None of the big guns use 100% Irish barley, but I would imagine that that was at least part of the appeal of the project he has undertaken. I’ve written about it before, many, many times, but I genuinely believe that his distillery is going to change how the world sees Irish whiskey. If you haven’t visited the distillery and tasted the different distillates from different farms, then you should, and only then will you understand why this is so important. Reynier may come across like a monomaniacal Ahab, endlessly pursuing the perfect single malt across the oceans, but he is deadly serious, and is in the process of making the most authentically Irish single malt in living memory. Between Waterford’s terroir obsession and Blackwater Distillery’s blockchain traceability, it would appear that the Déise are leading the charge in genuine, forensic provenance.

Culture: We have a dedicated magazine, blogs, social media accounts and a thriving whiskey culture. In 2019 this is only going to get stronger, and we are going to see more and more of the accused breed known as influencers. Across the PR and marketing spectrum, nano-influencers – or those with fewer than 10,000 followers – are becoming a key leverage point. They operate in niche fields and rather than just leading a million fawning accounts, they actively engage with their following. The idea of the influencer makes all of us want to vomit blood, but they have always existed – Jesus, Charlie Manson, Bertie Ahern, your local GAA star who won an All-Ireland and was thus hired by the bank to stand around talking about former glories; all these have influence and are, or were, influencers, just not in the modern, social media sense. A niche market like whiskey is a relatively easy place to become a nano influencer – just find a channel and use your voice. Whiskey lovers are few and far between – but the internet has made us a community.

So the fans are linked up, but what about the distilleries – could any of us accurately say where even half of them are with regards their plans, or their progress, or anything? I think that starting a distillery is such a labour intensive affair that distilleries often forget to keep the channels open to the nerds. It’s fine to have an interview in the local or national press once in a while, but this is a long game and you will be lucky to get an interview once a year. But if you connect with whiskey lovers online, through social media or blogging, and take them along for the journey, then you will have your a voluntary public relations operation ready to fight your corner. I know the distilleries that I feel most invested in, and the ones that I have the most interest in, are the ones that used social media well – it isn’t rocket science, just the odd tweet about the day to day working of a distillery, or blog post about yeast. You can retain some digital bitumen bandits to run your Insta account if you want, and nod blithely while they cook numbers and conflate clicks with engagement, but if you can do it at all, keep those direct lines of communication open to the whiskey community. After all, the smaller, independent distilleries need all the support we can give them, because here comes trouble.

El Diableo: An easy prediction for any year is that Diageo will continue to be the pantomime villain of the drinks world. Oh no they aren’t, oh yes they are, etc etc. To be fair, Diageo are fine, but I often wonder if they had been the ones in charge of Jameson/Midleton for the last four decades, how supportive would they have been of all the newcomers in the industry. About as supportive as Thanos was of 50% of the universe when he snapped his fingers in Infinity War, mayhaps. So Diageo are back – Louise McGuane wrote an excellent piece that gives great insight into what seemed like an odd move (selling Bushmills and then building a distillery in St James’s Gate), but a recent interview with Grainne Wafer, the global brand director of Roe & Co, makes you wonder about their game plan. Diageo have their sights set on the premium category, which as they rightly point out, is wide open in this country.  

“The Irish whiskey category is really dynamic, but the super premium and luxury segment of Irish whiskey globally is underdeveloped. We think there is a strong opportunity to drive growth of premium Irish whiskey. That’s where Roe & Co sits,” she told Fora.

You know, Roe & Co, the whiskey that looks like Bulleit and is discounted in Tesco yet you still don’t want it. The interview goes on:

“You’ve only got a handful of brands that are operating in that super premium space. There are some starting to build on that, but we believe we can take the lead and shape that segment,” she said.

“For example, some of Jameson’s new innovations like Caskmates and Teeling’s small batches would sit up there. Likewise, that’s where Roe & Co would play; in the upper end of that segment.”

So the 50 to 60 euro category. If that’s premium, then we are a far meaner nation than I previously believed. Of course, it was rightly pointed out by Serghios Florides, editor of Irish Whiskey Magazine, that as Diageo used to own Bushmills, a distillery that is packed with fantastic mature whiskey, for them to now act like they are going to teach us all about categories is a little rich. This sentiment was echoed Yves Cosentino, who was Global Marketing Manager with Bushmills Irish Whiskey from 2005 to 2008, in the earliest days of Diageo owning it.

Or how about this from Louise McGuane again, writing about Proper No. 12:

When I worked at Diageo in the Reserve Brands Group, Bushmills was added into our portfolio for a while. Nobody ever wanted to talk about it, focus on it, or even address it. The brand was an also ran in a company with a Huge portfolio of Rockstar Scotch Whiskey. It was an afterthought. It was under the eye of Diageo that the distillery sold off much of its stocks at the low point of the wholesale market. There was never a blockbuster ad campaign or indeed much love for Bushmills at the global office in London during my tenure.

So cheers once again to the mad titan Diageo, it’s great to have you back in the Irish whiskey category.

Diversification and innovation: The recent Bord Bia report into Irish food and drink showed some impressive stats for whiskey, but underneath those was a stark warning – we need to broaden our horizons. What we call ‘the Irish whiskey boom’ is, in reality, the ‘Jameson In America’ boom. If you subtract those stats, which relate to one drink in one market, it is a rather different picture you get. But Jameson has laid the groundwork, and hopefully it will continue to do so in emerging markets like Asia and Africa, while Diageo, Brown Forman, and whoever owns Bushmills this week will be able to do the same.

What we need to be able to do now is show the world that actually, Irish whiskey isn’t just the mellow, smooth, approachable Jameson, that we can do peat, we can do double distilled, we can do single malt, we even have our own indigenous style. We can challenge and confront misconceptions and have the confidence to try new things. Look at Irish Whitetail – contrary to what this misleading article says, they do not have a distillery, nor are they using African mahogany casks. They are using sourced, Cooley malt and finishing it with African mahogany – I’m going to assume the system they use is very similar to Tom Lix’s Cleveland Whiskey, ie, pressure + wood pellets = flavour. Lix’s approach to innovation is excellent – on the labels of his whiskey he challenges you by being completely up front about what he is doing. I admire his attitude and I enjoyed his whiskey. I’m not going to give up my respect for traditional ageing, but I definitely think there is room for pushing the boundaries in the category, both globally and domestically.

Health: I am prone to using terms like ‘neo-prohibitionism’, but even I need to face reality – booze isn’t especially good for me. I can ramble on with a load of whataboutery, drone on about how sedentary lifestyle, processed foods, or chemtrails, are just as harmful, but there is little point. Despite the fact that our alcohol consumption rates are falling all the time, booze is in the crosshairs of Big Health, and will continue to be for some time. Of course, it isn’t just about physical well-being, but social issues too.

In a bout of harrumphing, I happened to ask an ENT consultant how he felt about the health bill introduced last year. He said that we are only just starting to understand the impact that alcohol has on health, and that the cancers of the head and neck he saw were so often linked to alcohol consumption. Then I asked if MUP was just a class-based prohibition, and he said this: Don’t be afraid to look outside your own privilege. There are children whose lives are being ruined by parents who are lost in alcoholism, and cheap alcohol is central to that.

I can wring my hands all I want, but ultimately he was right. There are people who cannot help themselves. It’s like saying well, SVP buying food for families ravaged by alcoholism is simply facilitating their self destruction. Ask the SVP about this and they will tell you point blank – either they fill the cupboards with food, or the cupboards stay empty. This is not an either-or situation, where SVP bought the cereal for the kids so you can treat yourself to a slab of cans that costs half nothing. I’m not saying I want whiskey to get more expensive – it is already – but there is booze that goes for half nothing and it is ruining lives. That, whether we like it or not, is going to have to change, and it would appear that this is happening sooner rather than later. Yet however I feel about the impact on health of alcohol, cancer warnings on bottles of Irish whiskey, and not on bottles of Scotch on the shelf alongside them, is insane.

The decline of pubs: It has been a gradual decline, and it is going to continue. Drink driving laws are not to blame – if anything, our lack of regard for the dangers of drink driving allowed an unhealthy number of pubs to thrive here. We are drinking less, drinking at home more and – crucially – drinking better. I see little wrong with this picture. There will always be room for a great pub, but even in my hometown there are far too many.

One final prediction for 2019 is that I will continue to write too much. This post is 3,000 words, thank you for your patience. I wrote my first published piece about whiskey almost six years ago, and I would love to tell you that my passion for writing on the subject has abated, but it obviously hasn’t. Your passion for this blog post probably abated about two thousand words back, but thanks for hanging in there. Maybe I should make 2019 the year I learn to self edit. We shall see.

A toast to 2018

A festive bribe/gift from IDL. please note the attention to detail on addressing the letter to my personal lifestyle brand.

It was another boom year for Irish whiskey – Blackwater and Powerscourt both came to life, Nephin are gearing up to build, and Bono and Paddy McKillen bought into a proposed distillery for Monasterevin. It is an exciting time, and a sure sign that Irish whiskey was accelerating was the appearance of our first celebrity whiskey.

Conor McGregor has great taste in Irish whiskey – he was often seen sipping some excellent whiskeys after big bouts – so when he announced he was bringing a whiskey out, I had great expectations. Would he go for super premium, would he opt for a more approachable ten year old single malt, or even a pot still release? No, he would not. He opted for a blend, with grain from Midleton (update: Not Midleton but GND, apparently) and malt from Bushmills, the latter being a distillery which seemed to mistakenly believe he owned.

If using Bushmills stock allows you to claim you own it then half the country owns the place.

I haven’t tried Proper No. 12 – a name he was forced to settle for after his attempt at trademarking Notorious was shot down – and while there are obviously those who would knock McGregor’s drink for the sake of it, it does appear that his pricing on this release – 35 euro – is a little over the top. Still, I wouldn’t hold that against him – Irish whiskey has long had delusions about pricing, and as a result has a long way to go before it offers the value for money that Scotch does.

There is one thing that McGregor’s Proper No. 12 will do for Irish whiskey: Increase category awareness. With his tens of millions of fans, he can bring more people into the fold. We all start out on blends, and Proper No. 12 will be a gateway for a small percentage of those who try it and are curious to know more. Obviously a lot of people will drink it because they love him, and never go beyond it, as the liquid doesn’t really matter to them, because this is about his brand. And herein lies my problem with this product.

Even the slightest scrutiny of McGregor’s rhetoric in recent years should set alarm bells ringing. You can call it banter, or patter, or whatever you want, but the racism, bigotry and Islamophobic dog whistling he has engaged in is an obscenity. I admire his swagger, and his skill, but watching Khabib Nurmagomedov choke him out was incredibly satisfying after all the insults McGregor threw at him about both his faith and his family. This aspect of MMA – the war of words leading up to big bouts – makes it look less like a sport and more like a back alley bar fight. Compare the dignity and grace of Katie Taylor with McGregor’s ‘dance for me boy’ comments to Mayweather and then tell me Ireland should be proud of him. Still, as ambassadors for Irish whiskey go, McGregor is probably less tainted than John McAfee.

Yes, that John McAfee.

McGregor’s release was the whiskey headline of the year, and the release of Red Spot was a staid affair in comparison, even if it excited the nerds. Red Spot, along with Green and Yellow, are throwbacks to the old tradition of bonding. I’m not going to digress into a history lesson, because in this case it is largely irrelevant, but here is some musty press release for you to blow the dust off:

The Mitchell family commenced trading in 1805 at 10 Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin as purveyors of fine wine and confectionery. In 1887, the business expanded into whiskey bonding whereby it sent empty wine and fortified wine casks to the local Jameson Distillery on Bow Street to be filled with new single pot still spirit for maturation in the Mitchell’s cellars.

The Red Spot name was derived from the Mitchell’s practice of marking their maturing casks of whiskey with a daub of coloured paint to determine the age potential of the whiskey; with a Blue Spot, Green Spot, Yellow Spot or Red Spot indicating 7, 10, 12 or 15 years respectively. Four generations later, the company is still in the wine and spirits business under the stewardship of Jonathan Mitchell and his son Robert.

If I have to explain who these people are then why are you reading this? Also I thought the caption was embedded but it’s not and I’m really lazy.

Red is a triple-distilled, single pot still Irish whiskey that has been matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of casks pre-seasoned with Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and Marsala fortified wine. I bought a bottle for Christmas and liked it – very sweet, rich and smooth, like meself.

The problem now for the Spot family is where Blue will sit. It is meant to be a seven-year-old, while Green was meant to be a ten year old. In some super-duper premium releases, Green is a ten, but in its most common iteration it is NAS, and priced at the 50-60 mark. Yellow is a 12 and is 70-80. So where do you place a seven year old? It has to be cheaper than Yellow, so let’s say 60. What then for Green, which as a NAS is presumably aged four to seven years? To me, the easiest way round this is to do Blue as a cask-strength and place it at the 70-80 mark. Obviously I’m no consumer expert, but it will be interesting to see how Blue finds its place. The Spot family needs it though, as it currently looks like three freshers off to a traffic light ball, adorned with yellow, red and green badges, bootcut jeans, Rockports and Ben Sherman shirts. Or maybe Blue Spot will just look like a paramedic showing up at 3am to stop them from choking on their own tongues.

It was a big year for Irish Distillers Limited – they bought a brewery to secure casks for Caskmates, and also supposedly sorta kinda announced they were building a distillery that would be seperate from their current base in Midleton. Beyond that they continued to release single casks in connection with various whiskey pubs, with a barrage of Powers and Redbreast releases keeping the collectors running around the country like the cast of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and keeping a lot of whiskey pubs loyal to the throne.

Then there is the alleged upcoming IDL release of a gin, and here comes some wild conjecture: I think it could be released under the Method and Madness label. The M&M brand, with its links to the experimentation in the microdistillery, is ideal for a gin (the gin still is also housed within the micro). M&M makes sense for this – they are coming into a crowded market and they need to go small and experimental, ie, the exact opposite of their jaded Cork Dry Gin, AKA ‘the gin your racist aunt drinks’. Gin is a wild scene and if this release from Midleton doesn’t take hold, the M&M brand allows them to quietly shelve it as an experiment that erred on the side of madness. Again, all conjecture on my part.

Outside of the industry, Ireland has a raft of new whiskey voices. It’s fantastic to see bloggers, YouTubers, Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles popping up and enjoying that general buzz of a scene that is exploding. It’s an exciting time to be a whiskey lover, and I would urge anyone out there with a passion for our native spirit to start blogging, tweeting or just larking about on the internet, as we always need more voices. And besides, there’s always the off chance you might get the odd freebie or ten.

In May I was invited over to the Spirit of Speyside festival. It is an incredible event and I recommend it to anyone interested in whiskey tourism and how to do it right – the new tasting room in Strathisla was a great education in how you make whiskey tasting fun and interested for those who don’t care all that much about whiskey. It can’t just be a science lesson and a look at some stills – you need to give people an experience they will remember. Let the nerds into the warehouse with the master distiller, but the buses of tourists need more than a wander around a stillhouse and a talk on yeast.

Obviously, this was my second time being brought over for the Spirit Of Speyside. I was there in 2015 too, and was invited largely because of all the nice things I had written for the Irish Examiner about Midleton Distillery. The festival sponsors in 2015 were Chivas, or, to give them their full title, Chivas Brothers Pernod Ricard. My invite this year also came from Chivas, and I stayed in a Chivas house next to Strathisla. Look, I am basically a giant whiskey whore and we all just need to make our peace with that fact, I have no scruples and I am in the pocket of Big Whiskey, I’m changing my name to Bill Linnane Pernod Ricard, or Jean Luc Ricard, yada yada yada.

I had assumed that as my French friends were so generous during the year, that I wouldn’t be getting a Christmas bottle. I saw other bloggers and whiskey commentators getting Redbreast 15s and Green Spots, and thought, good for them, as I hummed All The Young Dudes to myself. Then a package arrived, and I gave my wife quite the jolt when I shouted FUCK ME as I opened it and realised what it was. It was, in fact, this:

Irish Distillers has unveiled the next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition.

In collaboration with expert forestry consultant, Paddy Purser, the Irish Distillers team of Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation, and Billy Leighton, Head Blender, chose Bluebell Forest on Castle Blunden Estate to provide the oak for the second edition in the Midleton Dair Ghaelach series. Each bottle can be traced back to one of six individual 130-year-old oak trees that were carefully felled in the Bluebell Forest in May of 2013.

Bluebell Forest is found among the historic stone walls of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Since the 1600s, generations of the Blunden Family have watched over a stand of Irish oak trees with a carpet of luminescent bluebells covering the forest floor.

NO REPRO FEE 12/01/2018 Kilkenny Whiskey Guild. Pictured at a Kilkenny Whiskey Guild (KWG) tasting event are (l to r) Cyril Briscoe, KWG; Eddie Langton, KWG and Langton’s Hotel; Patrick Blunden, Castle Blunden; Kevin O’Gorman, Midleton Master of Maturation; Ger Buckley, Midleton Master Cooper; Dave McCabe, Midleton Blender; Paddy Purser, Forestry Consultant; Jim Rafferty, KWG and The Dylan Whisky Bar, in celebration of Irish Distillers next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition. This exceptional offering has been finished in barrels made from Irish oak grown in the Bluebell Forest of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves, which were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez. After drying for 15 months, the staves were worked into 29 Irish oak Hogshead casks and given a light toast.

The whiskey, made up of a selection of Midleton’s classic rich and spicy pot still distillates matured for between 12 and 23 years in American oak barrels, was then filled into the Irish oak Hogshead casks and diligently nosed and tasted each month by Leighton and O’Gorman. After a year and a half, the pair judged that the whiskey had reached the perfect balance between the spicy single pot still Irish whiskey and Irish oak characteristics.

Bottled at cask strength, between 55.30% to 56.30% ABV, and without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest is available from November 2017 in markets, including the US, Canada, Ireland, France and the UK at the recommended selling price of $280 per 70cl.

When this first hit the market I cheerfully remarked that whilst celebrating the great houses (and cashing in on their equally great history) is nice, it’s also worth remembering that they were built on the bones of a million Irish dead. It was a thought that came back to me at Powerscourt as I stood in the estate’s pet cemetery – there are headstones there from 1916, meaning that while the aristocrats were holding funerals for their dogs, Irish people were being lined up and shot because they wanted their freedom. A terrible beauty indeed.

I made this image which is why it is shit.

But enough of my inept historical punditry – to some equally inept tasting notes!

On the nose, sweet red pepper, roasted tomato, the leather/tobacco/spice trifecta in full effect. I’m not sure where this is going – it’s part savoury, part spun sugar, with that curious wood element in the background. Chinese five spice, roasted banana, Black Forest Gateau, shortbread biscuit, melted Twix, and a fair amount of WTFery. It’s not as immediate as the Redbreast 21, but then, what is?

On the palate, Euthymol toothpaste, fruit pastilles, Skittles, a lot of really bright flavours, and a lot less of those deep, dark ones of RB21. It is smooth, and elegant, but it just lacks that Krakatoa boom you want from something that costs 300. It’s a very well made whiskey, with great balance, but it’s no Dreamcask. However, it’s the element of experimentation with native wood that makes this remarkable – the ability to make a uniquely Irish whiskey that little bit more Irish.

Of course, I’m not just a corporate mouthpiece for Big Whiskey, I’m also a corporate mouthpiece for medium-sized, grassroots, bootstrap whiskey, in this case embodied by West Cork Distillers. I had eyed them with an air of Cold War paranoia over the last couple of years, seeing them as secretive and touchy. What the hell are they building in there, I growled to myself. Then a chance meeting with John O’Connell changed that, and he threw open the doors in Skibb to me, a trip that became this sprawling piece on FFT.ie. John is one of the most honest, straight shooting people in Irish whiskey, and is quietly doing great things down there. One example of this is his spirit of experimentation, such as their reverse engineering of peated whiskey.

Peated malt is hard to come by in Ireland – legend has it that one maltster did a peated batch but didn’t clean the pipes properly afterwards, with the end result that a batch of very lightly peat-tainted malted barley went to a very large and notoriously black-hearted brewer. Cue said brewer issuing a notice to all malting houses in Ireland that there was to be no more peating or they would no longer do business with them, thus ending peated Irish malt. Allegedly.  

Peat is an undiscovered country here – we have a few peated whiskeys, but as far as I know they were all peated in Scotland, using Scottish peat, and – most likely – Scottish grain. As always, I’m open to correction here, so feel free to jump in and school me.

John O’Connell comes from a background in food science, and experimentation is in his genes, so to create a peated Irish whiskey, he simply infused casks with Irish peat by charring them with a peat fire. Taking single malt aged in sherry butts, he then finished the whiskey in the peat charred cask for another six months, resulting in this release. It’s a single cask, released at cask strength. But what I love about WCD is their sense of fairness – all of their releases are incredibly reasonably priced, which may be part of the reason they don’t often get the respect they deserve.

Whiskey is a snobbish scene – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – and a value dram from WCD might get overlooked in favour of a pricier bottle. This peat cask release has a surprisingly clean nose despite the strength – not a huge amount from the peat, but a lot from the sherry – red fruits, black cherry, oatcake, maybe a little red onion jam. Nail polish, but in a good way. On the palate the strength makes itself known immediately. The peat here is minimal – I could see this being used as an intro to peated whiskeys for those who might not be ready to have their face fucked by Laphroaig. This liquid has a lot of sizzle, making way for oily, slightly smokey flavours – hickory smoked bacon, BBQ sauce and caramelised sugar. A short finish, and a fine dram for a good price. I even like the wine-bottle aesthetic they opted for.


This whiskey is a brave experiment for a small distillery and I think it’s worth a punt. Obviously, there are those who would disagree, but I love that WCD took a risk. The Irish are nothing if not inventive, and I welcome a bit of experimentation – it doesn’t matter if that is with strange casks, biodynamic barley, strange grains, local peat, or even pellets of African mahogany. The Dair Ghaelach and the WCD come from opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a super-premium release from a massive distillery with money to burn; the other is a bargain dram from a distillery that has a still which was made from a hotel boiler. But what unites them is a willingness to experiment and try new things, and for that they are both to be commended.

And so to 2019. How many more distilleries are going to make it over the line? Maybe it is just my pessimistic nature, but to me it seems like we might be hitting peak distilling. Clon are on stream, Boann are there too, Glendalough are working away at getting their whiskey distilling operation up and running, Tipp are opening in 2019 in Dundrum House. I find myself looking at the IWA distillery map from a couple of years ago and marvelling that so many have actually made it. Granted, some on the map won’t make it, but overall it is a pretty impressive feat that we went from fuck-all distilleries to this many in a short period of time. There will be teething problems, but any concerns I ever had about the integrity of our messaging has nothing on the absolute mess that is Japanese whisky.

That said, if I was an American with roots in north Cork and I bought a bottle of Kilbrin Irish whiskey, produced by the Kilbrin Distilling Company, I would expect the liquid within to have some link to Kilbrin, especially as they say it is from the parish of Kilbrin.

Spoiler alert: Kilbrin whiskey has nothing to do with Kilbrin, apart from being ‘inspired’ by a mythical treasure buried in Kilbrin. It’s okay though, as this was a rookie error by a small firm with no background in whiskey, actually hang on I’m just checking my notes here and it would appear that the firm behind Kilbrin Whiskey is actually a subsidiary of Scots whisky giant (and owner of Tullamore DEW) Wm Grant & Sons. Well now I don’t know what to think.

The problem here isn’t really transparency per se – I genuinely don’t care where this whiskey comes from (chances are it is from Bushmills). I do start to care if I feel that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of American consumers, as there is also the contagion effect of mistrust. I don’t buy Japanese whisky anymore as I don’t want to have to turn into Hercule Poirot just to find out if the liquid was actually created in Japan, and if a couple of poorly-thought out brands burn the American consumer then we are doomed.

Yes, all Irish whiskey is Irish, so we are nowhere near the Japanese situation. But surely if place is being used as a selling point then we should consider that down the road people might want to visit that place to see where the whiskey came from? Why not just speak straight, like the fantastically blunt explanation of Blacks Whiskey and where it originated. Besides, if you are going after the average American consumer, surely people rather than places are both safer and more engaging – how many myths and legends do we have that could be exploited for a brand story? Feckin’ loads of them, all we have is batshit crazy stories about giants and mad yokes fighting huge dogs, stick them on the bottle rather than poor auld Kilbrin, a place I wouldn’t want any American wandering around in the hopes of finding a distillery. I’m not even sure they have a post office.

The good news is that even if we burn our bridges with America, at least we will have China to plunder, as Bord Bia have commissioned a report on attitudes to Irish whiskey there, and are looking for the findings in ‘a visually appealing, high-definition conference PowerPoint presentation which highlights the core insights and offers recommendations for the industry’. Wow – Powerpoint, I’d better hit pause on my Hootie and the Blowfish mp3 on my Zune, log off my dial up internet and use my landline to call 1996 because if you need to specifically ask people to use Powerpoint, you are setting a low bar. It just reminds me of the laughable LOI rebrand.

Irish whiskey bonder Louise McGuane, who has vast experience in both the US and Asia with various drinks brands, summed up what the report should say in a single tweet:

Now if only I could find a way to screenshot that tweet into a Powerpoint slide and maybe get it to spin into frame, then I could be raking in some sweet, sweet tax dollars from Bord Bia.

It wasn’t all good news for Irish whiskey this year – Brexit still poses massive uncertainty for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning whiskey scene, while I’m personally holding Brexit to account for Master Of Malt no longer shipping to Ireland. Apparently, it was always illegal for whiskey to be shipped unaccompanied into Ireland, but nobody seemed to give a damn when I brought in a few grands’ worth over the last four years. Now, with Brexit looming, there would appear to have been a clampdown. Thus, I have nowhere to go for my cheap deals – even the whiskey from my hometown was often cheaper on MoM than it is right here where it is made. If any whiskey fan out there has a solution to this mess, please HMU in the comments.

This sprawling disaster of a blog post is only an incredibly brief sliver of rumour and innuendo, and in no way representative of just how alive Irish whiskey is right now. If I could chuck in my job and spend six months doing a Barnard and visiting every distillery in Ireland, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t, so sadly you get this armchair punditry instead, in which I have managed to not mention about 90% of the big events from the year – Teeling pot still, Kilbeggan Rye, Dingle maturing like a fine wine, and the pagan science going on down in Waterford, which is part Wicker Man, part Gattaca. So here’s to 2019, 2020, 2021, and all the great whiskeys to come. As the old song goes, things can only get better.

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.

Start to Finnish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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