Captain’s log: Why? How? What?
Actual name is actual.
We all did crazy things after 9/11. I became a parent. I was living in Raheny at the time with a girl I had been with for two years. We met in my hometown, she lived in Dublin, we went out for a year and then I moved up to go to DCU and we moved in together. She was Scottish and lovely. She taught me important facets of her culture: Irn Bru, Greggs sausage rolls, thriftiness, and the wonders of Edinburgh. On my first visit to the city she told me she loved me for the first time, I met her parents, and fell in love with the place and the people.
If you’ve been, you will know that it is hard not to fall in love with it – it’s like MC Escher redesigned Hogwarts and chucked the lot down a cliff. It feels like an ever-shifting puzzle – I can never get my bearings between old town and new, night and day, drunk and sober. My relationship with Scotland’s capital was to long outlive my relationship with the Scottish girl. After some time living together, we realized we were really just very close friends, so we moved into separate rooms and got on with life, albeit a life trapped in a sad stalemate, without any new relationships, however fleeting. She had always wanted to move to Australia, so plans were made and she was to go in late autumn.
In early September 2001 I was walking back from Iceland (the shop in Edenmore, not the ethereal country in the north Atlantic). I noticed cars pulled in on the side of the road, radios blaring, doors open, drivers with one leg out, staring blankly. People in gardens staring at neighbours, TVs in front rooms playing loud. It was like the video for Just by Radiohead. I assumed someone important had died, like the Pope or Madonna. I got back to the house, stuck on Sky News and stared blankly at the mayhem. She came in and we sat there on the bed watching the towers fall, bodies fall, and we wondered if her flights would be affected. The world was changing, and ours was ending. A few weeks later she was on the other side of the planet, and I could move on. And so I did….sort of. I had first seen my wife at Castlemartyr Fair when I was a boozed-out 15 year old. She was amazing. I became tragically obsessed, and remained so for years. Four years later a friend was exhibiting some of his fashions at a show in Jurys in Cork, and I got wind that she would be modeling. So along I went, drank too much Linden Village, and told her how I had basically been stalking her for years. We dated briefly after that until she realized I was possibly completely mental. About three years later we dated again, and again she brutally dumped me as I was, unsurprisingly, still mental. But then I moved to Dublin, sorted my head out, and discovered she was working up there too. So after 9/11 I sauntered into her place of work, and we chatted about how terrible it all was and wow what a crazy time and anyway hey what are you doing next Saturday? Six months later she was pregnant. I have zero regrets. I never pictured myself as a parent, and self doubt would have stopped me from ever actively planning to become one. Who is worthy of that gift? Are you the best version of yourself you can be? Could you possibly say you are not going to ruin this little life? I still think those things now, and am plagued with self doubt, but a trip to your local McDonald’s will probably reassure you that you aren’t the worst parent in the world.
Since then we have had three little boys, but Katie – being the firstborn and the only girl – will always have a special place in my heart. So for the last couple of years I have brought her to Edinburgh to celebrate her birthday with her godfather, who has lived there since 1994. He studied marine biology, and loves the sea with a passion rivalled only by Troy McLure, so it was that we booked Katie a shark encounter at the Deep Sea World aquarium near the Firth Of Forth to mark her 12th nameday.
We flew ex-Dublin, as it was half the price of flying from Cork, and Cork Airport is a goddam nightmare. I’ve had many terrible experiences in that airport, most of them to do with cancelled flights, fog, delays, fog, piss-poor communication, fog, and even a shouting match with a security guard who called my family and I (including my elderly father) a ‘disgrace’ as we were late for a flight due to the check-in desk opening late. So when possible, I avoid Cork. We got a train up to Dublin, and even with taxis and buses we still got to Scotland and back for less than flying via Cork.
We flew on Friday the 13th and our seats were on Row 13. We even checked in our bags in area 13. Spoiler alert: We didn’t crash. We got there, had breakfast in Tranent, then visited the natural history museum, visited the Royal Mile, St Giles’s Cathedral, the Heart of Midlothian and Greyfriars Bobby. Katie refused to spit on the Heart (too ladylike), but insisted on touching Greyfriars Bobby’s little nose, which has been turned shiny from all the fingers rubbing off it in search of good luck.
The next morning it was time to don the Speedo and red beanie and get with the life aquatic. We got to Deep Sea World early enough to have some banter with the staff. So how many kids get eaten by the sharks? About one in each group of four, the girl said, telling Katie that this meant she either had a 25% chance of being eaten, or if she wanted to put a positive spin on it, a 75% chance that one of the other kids would die horribly. Oh, the fun we had. They gave her a dry suit, rudimentary training in using her scuba gear, and away she went into the tank. She was on a little platform in the main aquarium, so there was never really any danger, but it’s hard not to start hearing the first bars from the theme to Jaws when you see a 12-foot sand tiger shark glides towards your child. She had a good 45 minutes or so in there, feeding all the smaller fish and rays and eels, as the odd shark slid past them. The only magical experience I had at her age was a trip to Medjugorje so I could see people staring at the sun and speaking in tongues. I like bringing that trip up as it allows me to use the phrase ‘of course I spent some time in Yugoslavia before the war’. It also taught me that there is no god.
After she got out of the tank we spent some time in the aquarium, which is well worth a trip if you are ever in Scotland. Apart from all the smaller sections and tanks, the main one has a glass tunnel you walk through which enables you to feel like you are in the water. It’s also fun to bring someone who studied marine biology along and watch them correct little kids when they get the names of the different species wrong. Then it was back into town to take in more sights, do some bowling and generally lark about. After a shark encounter everything else is going to pale into comparison anyway.
The next day we visited Edinburgh Dungeon. Oddly, it is part of a franchise of three or four ‘dungeons’ in UK cities. Unsurprising though, as all of history is gruesome as fuck, and Edinburgh’s is no different. In almost total darkness we were ushered about the labyrinth of tunnels and rooms, each dealing with a different story from the city’s incredible past. If you’re thinking of bringing children, you might want to bring the bigger ones only – I overheard a little guy who was about six telling his dad that he ‘didn’t want to die’ during one frightfest. Your guides are the characters from the stories and the props and atmosphere generally is dark as all hell, so steel your nerves. We opened with the story of Sawny Bean, which is basically that remake of The Hills Have Eyes, only much, much worse.
The last part of the tour is great fun, one that comes with an in-character disclaimer that you might want to avoid it ‘if ye be pregnant or if ye be suffering from ye olde lower back pain’. Afterwards you get to buy a photo of yourself shitting your pantaloons – a valuable keepsake. See below:
Edinburgh is an incredible city. A thousand years of history and culture, great nightlife, great places to eat, things to do and places to go. For me these trips are a chance to appreciate how lucky I am – to have found love, become a parent, and have a friend who knows me better than myself. Beyond those simple things is the bigger picture – to live free in a country like Ireland, devoid of war and, despite the overwhelming negativity you encounter in the media, a great place to live, raise a family, work or even lose your job. Since 9/11, hell has broken loose across the globe, and if you need a reminder of why your life is actually pretty great (but can’t afford to throw your child into a tank full of sharks and killer sea monkeys), you can always watch Al Jazeera for 15 minutes.
These images show a person’s brain before drinking 6 ounces of whisky (left), immediately after drinking the whisky (middle) and 90 mins after drinking (right). In these brain scans, blue represents a more chaotic brain, while yellow shows less chaos.
THE WHISKEY RENAISSANCE has the world clamoring for well-aged hooch, but the so-called brown spirits—whiskey, brandy, rum—have one widely-publicized problem. It takes time, and lots of it, to make them. Or at least to make them taste good.
The booze industry has been looking for shortcuts to the aging process virtually since its inception, ranging from dumping extra oak chips into barrels of whiskey to artificially heating and cooling them to rapidly simulate the passing of seasons. While some of these tools have had modest levels of success, many have been complete failures. In fact, even Jesus weighed in on the dangers of trying to hasten the processes of nature when he said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Luke 5:37)
If Bryan Davis has his way, that’s all about to be totally upended, sacrilege or not. Davis has come up with a method of producing spirits that taste like they’ve been aging in the barrel for 20 years, but his process only takes six days.
A match made in heaven.
So I had a vasectomy, wrote an article about it (to help pay for it) and then went on radio and TV to talk bollocks (literally). A lot of fun. I’ll write up more about the whole experience whenever I get the time (ie, possibly never as I have four kids), but for now here is the entire, hand-wringing, male angst-riddled dirge. That’s my wife and I below. Please note how I am the same colour as my shoes, my couch, and my terracotta kitchen tiles. ‘Irish’ me hole.
At dawn on June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops began landing in Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history, and a turning point in the Second World War. It’s hard to imagine the fear those young men must have felt as they approached the shore in their landing craft. Seventy years later to the day, I was thinking of them as I made my way to Blackrock Hall Health Centre in Mahon, trying to imagine what they mast have felt, hoping to put my own fear in perspective. I tried to convince myself that I was launching my own campaign to free myself from nature’s tyrannical plan to overpopulate this planet, that what I was doing was a heroic deed. But nothing lessened my fear. I was terrified.
The decision to have a vasectomy wasn’t made lightly, but since I hit forty next year, I felt that now is the time. My wife and I have been fortunate to have three wonderful children – with a fourth on the way – so she has done more than her fair share. She’s been through almost three years of the various delights of pregnancy and about a week of hard labour, so I can’t realistically expect her to do any more. It was time for me to step up. Society tells us that men are the protectors – the men who stormed the beaches on D Day were guided by this belief as much as anything – and while gender politics may have evolved considerably since the 1940s, I still walk on the outside of the footpath when we’re out together, and I’m still the one sent down to investigate when the fridge’s auto defrost goes bump in the night.
However, when it comes to reproductive protection, the responsibility is very much placed on women. Think of the plethora of contraception available for women – a vast array of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, all of which have potentially serious side effects. For men, there are two options; condoms or vasectomy. As a man of absolutes, I chose the latter. A friend of mind told me about Dr John McCormick’s vasectomy clinic in Blackrock Hall, pitching it to me with the catchy line of ‘no scar, no scalpel’. The scar part was never a concern; frankly, it will be a dark, dark day in my career in the media if a vasectomy scar is a barrier to me getting work. The absence of a scalpel however, was most appealing. I made my appointment, got a few simple instructions to prepare for the procedure – the main one involves some light manscaping, so you’re going to need to borrow your wife’s Ladyshave and be very, very careful with it – and braced myself for the big day.
In the days running up to the event, I chatted to a friend about what I was about to do; their words of consolation were ‘ah sher you’ll be fine – when I got my dog fixed he hardly bled at all’. I tried to explain that I wasn’t about to be neutered, that fertility and virility were not the same thing, but their comment still struck a chord. I remember getting our cat neutered – before, he was a big playful tom, wandering, hunting and carousing. Afterwards he became big, fat and lazy. I knew this wouldn’t happen to me, but the niggling doubt remained – would a vasectomy change me? Would the twinkle in my eye slowly flicker and die? Would my wit be dulled, or would some part of me be lost forever; in essence, would there be a lessening of who I am?
Arriving at the clinic, a hyper modern health facility bordering on dystopian, I took my seat and watched a minute or two of The Jeremy Kyle Show on the TV. If ever there was an advert for responsible reproduction, it’s that.
Then it was my turn. Dr McCormick explained the difference between his procedure and the more traditional one: “One of the common myths about No-needle No-Scalpel Vasectomy is that it is a new modern method of male sterilisation over conventional vasectomy.
“While it is relatively new and has not been in practice in Ireland for very long, no-scalpel vasectomy has been in practice since the late 1970s in China and in the USA since the 1980s and has grown in popularity since then.”
This technique also means no syringe, so you won’t get to hear the line ‘you may feel a little prick’.
“No-needle anaesthesia is a more comfortable method of delivering the anaesthetic. It works much faster and men don’t experience the typical “bee sting” sensation that occurs with a needle being used. Once it has taken effect men typically don’t feel anything else.”
He ran through all the usual stuff, potential side effects of the procedure, and talked me through the Lovecraftian wonders of the male reproductive system and how his more modern vasectomy technique works. He even drew me a little picture, which looked like a cartoon octopus.
“A traditional vasectomy is where 1 or 2 incisions are made with a scalpel or sharp knife. Each vas deferens, the tube that carries sperm, is then accessed through the corresponding incision and the vasectomy is then performed. Because a sharp blade is used bleeding is more likely to occur. With a No-Scalpel Vasectomy only one small opening less than 1 cm in length is made in the middle of the scrotum, it’s actually more of a small tear in the skin as opposed to a sharp incision. This is normally healed within 24 hours and no stitches are necessary.”
Then it was up on the table and we were underway. The application of the anesthetic is the only part of the procedure you feel – it’s basically two small jolts of mild discomfort, certainly nothing like the pain of stubbing your toe or having a toddler run head first into your groin. Ten minutes later, I was done. I gingerly eased off the table, Dr McCormick gave me a can of Coke to steady my nerves, and a couple of minutes later I was on my way home. For the next couple of days I lay in bed and ate jaffa cakes someone had given me as a joke (jaffas are seedless oranges) and watched The Big Lebowski a few times. I was back in work as usual the following week, but scaled back my exercise regime. Four days later I was back tentatively running, and by Father’s Day, nine days after my personal D-Day, I was back to my usual routine. Now, two months on, it all seems like a distant memory, albeit one that will probably make me squirm a little for some time yet. There is absolutely no physiological or psychological difference.
I wanted to write about my experience for two reasons; one, it helped me overcome the fear, to see it as a research project – sort of like Woodward and Bernstein, if they had spent most of the Watergate investigation walking like John Wayne and sitting down very, very slowly.
I also wanted to write about it because I found that not many men talk openly about vasectomy. I looked on the internet in the build-up to the day, but what little I found gave me no solace – it was all chest-thumping bravado, the occasional horror story, or the textbook male comment of ‘sher you’ll be grand’. It seems that even in the age of the overshare, there are still some topics men aren’t overly comfortable talking about. In 2012 Swedish anthropologist Felicia Garcia presented a paper at NUI Maynooth after spending two years studying men in the area I grew up in. She found that young men were routinely having their sexuality and masculinity ridiculed over such simple things as using an umbrella or eating a salad.
This oppressive ‘lad’ culture, where sexuality was constantly policed and emotions stifled, meant that Ms Garcia found young men in east Cork were slower to talk about their feelings than the members of south American crime gangs she had previously studied. So much of our ideas of being a man are caught up in false notions of strength, that somehow fear, sadness and love are less manly than anger and lust. I was terrified by the thought of getting a vasectomy, and afterwards felt a lot of sadness; it meant no more babies, and the finality of that is bittersweet, as few things in this life bring as much meaning into your world as being a parent.
The primal fear I felt was unlike anything else I have ever experienced; it felt like every fibre of my being from DNA up was screaming at me to stop, but I knew that this was my job, this was something that I had to do. For me, getting a vasectomy wasn’t about sex or desire, it was a profound statement of love and devotion – that if through some terrible circumstance I should lose my wife and children, that these moments, this life we have been blessed with, could never be reproduced. This was my task, as a protector, as a father and a husband. As my wife and I move through life together, I want her to be safe, and to know that protecting her is my job. If that makes me less of a man, then I’m ok with that.
Dr John McCormick’s procedure costs 450, which may seem a lot until you realize that most baby travel systems cost upwards of 600. You will be able to drive home after the procedure, but it might be safer to have someone with you to drive, as you just don’t know how shaken you will be. As for recovery time, Dr McCormick says: “Because it’s minimally invasive men are much less likely to have bleeding or swelling, with no more “ice packs” needed. Men return to work the next day and sports or physical work may be resumed after 48 hours. Some of the more resilient Cork men have even done 50km cycles less than 48 hours later!”
That might be slightly ambitious, although I do know of one person who went kickboxing the next day. My advice would be to take it easy, rest up, and 48 hours later you can get back to normal. You’ll need to wear an athletic support for a few days, so just pretend you’re Superman; hard seats will be your kryptonite. Age is also no barrier to getting the procedure – Dr McCormick has performed it on men from 23 to 73. You can find out all you need to know on http://vasectomyireland.ie/.
Footnote that obviously didn’t go into print edition: The article summed up in gif format –
I met with Maurice and Frederic Hennessy, two brothers who are the eighth-generation descendants of Richard Hennessy, the north Cork man who created the iconic Cognac brand. The feature ran in the Irish Examiner a few months back, but this is the full version. All the beautiful photos were taken by the fantastic Ger McCarthy, one of the best press and PR photographers in Ireland.
As birthplaces of empires go, Killavullen is more humble than most. Nestled between the lush green slopes of the Blackwater Valley, the village is home to an immediate population of about 200. It is a pretty place, with a few pubs, a church, and a community centre.
But it is at the highest point in the village that you will find the origins of one of the best-known luxury brands in the world. Almost hidden among the trees is Ballymacmoy House, the ancestral home of Richard Hennessy, who went on to create one of the world’s best-known and most-respected Cognac brands. So it was fitting that as the Hennessy dynasty celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, two eighth-generation descendants of Richard Hennessy – brothers Maurice and Frederic Hennessy – welcomed 55 wine producers and distillers from the Cognac region to their family home.
Frederic lives in Ballymacmoy House, having spent the last number of years restoring it to its former glory, while Maurice travels the world as Ambassadeur de la Maison Hennessy. Both grew up in France, but have many happy memories of coming to Cork for their holidays.
“I think I was 10 when I first came to Cork,” Frederic tells me; “we were told that if we did well in our school exams, we would be brought to Ballymacmoy for our holidays. So we did well, and we came here.”
Maurice tells me one of his first memories of north Cork – being taken on a hunt. As he was only 12 or so, and an inexperienced rider, he fell from his horse when it shied at a wire gate which suddenly loomed up in front of them. “Stupid gate!” he says laughing. But he was smitten by the country – both brothers felt a deep connection to Ireland, and the Irish. And so they should, for it was here in 1724 that the youngest son of Lord Ballymacmoy was born. At 20 years of age, he took flight to France to fight with King Louis XV.
Injured at the Battle of Fontenoy, he later settled on the banks of the Charente River, which glides past the town of Cognac. It was here that he started making this particular style of brandy, and where the empire began to take shape. However, it was Richard’s son James that really accelerated the expansion, forging links with the Martell Cognac dynasty through marriage and also being one of the first drinks producers to begin trade with the Revolutionary government, whilst also linking up with traders in London and New York in the 1800s.
While Cognac may be perceived by some as a patriarchal, elitist drink, Hennessy is a true egalitarian spirit. It has links to the founding of the Tuskegee Institute, a groundbreaking centre of education for African Americans, as well as the civil rights group the National Urban League. Hennessy was also the drink of choice for African American soldiers during the Second World War, just as jazz was embraced by the French when it arrived in the clubs of Paris in the aftermath of the war.
This affinity with African American culture saw Ebony magazine describe Hennessy as ‘the unofficial official drink of Black America’. Rappers don’t embrace Hennessy because it symbolizes their wealth, they embrace it because they feel ownership of it. But this sense of ownership is shared around the world: Maurice tells me a story from the time in 1996 when Jacque Chirac sanctioned nuclear tests by the French military in the Pacific Ocean. The world was aghast, and there was an Irish boycott of French goods. One little old lady was picking up her usual order at the grocers in Dublin, and when asked if she would take her usual bottle of Cognac also, she said she ‘wouldn’t touch the French stuff after what Chirac did, but would take a bottle of the Irish stuff, Hennessy, instead’.
“Some see it as a French drink, made in Ireland,” Maurice smiles.
However Irish it is in spirit, the geography of where it is produced is enshrined in law – Cognac can only come from the Cognac region. Like Champagne (a name which, like the name ‘Cognac’, is derived from a word meaning ‘chalky soil’), once the drink is produced elsewhere, it loses the legal right to that name.
So the wine producers and distillers entertained at Ballymacmoy House were of vital importance to Hennessy. Maurice explains how they nurture the growers just as the growers nurture the vineyards – Hennessy works with the farmers to ensure they get the best result possible from their crops and distilling processes. There is no ruthless business ethic here – if the product is not exactly as they had hoped, Hennessy work with the producer to explore ways to make it better – they strive for perfection, but they do it together, as a community. And so it was that to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Hennessy company, they flew producers and distillers to Richard’s home.
But the community in Killavullen have been to Cognac also: Maurice says that when the parish used to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, they would always visit the Hennessy estate. When asked if they called on the way to Lourdes or the way back, Maurice says “On the way there of course, that way they could seek absolution afterwards for having such a good time!”
The brothers both have a strong sense of their Irish links: Maurice tells me about going to Chicago and Boston for St Patrick’s Day and marveling at how on that day, ‘everyone was Irish’ no matter their race or religion, while both spoke of the sadness they felt at seeing lives lost during the Troubles. Two and a half centuries may have passed since their forefather left Killavullen for France, but the Irish connection is still strong. There is a term in wine growing: Terroir. It means the climate, geography, soil conditions, people and production techniques that come together to create a specific wine. In short, it means a sense of place, of origin, of home. Hennessy Cognac may be a global brand, and it’s residence may now be along the banks of the Charente, but its incredible legacy owes no small amount to the terroir of a sleepy village in north Cork and the remarkable man it produced.
Ballymacmoy House itself dates back to 1818, but the original, which was farther upriver, was the home that Richard. The popular version of the demise of the original house says the roof was made from slate taken from the surrounding Nagle Mountains, and was too heavy – to the point that one evening during dinner, the whole top of the house collapsed, killing a goose and a pig and injuring a beggar who happened to be at the door at the time. However, the whole family escaped unharmed. Maurice is quick to point out that this somewhat odd story differs from the more believable one he grew up with – that there was a fire started by a vagrant and the house burnt down. Across the river from the current house is the birthplace of another iconic dynasty – the home of Nano Nagle, after whose family the mountains are named. And Maurice tells me that the hunt he went on as a 12 year old was organised by Dr Nagle, a family friend, and that the Hennessys and the Nagles had been connected for generations.
Cognac can only come from the region it takes its name from, and is a variety of brandy. The law dictates the type of grapes used to make the wine, which is then distilled twice in copper alembic stills and aged in French oak barrels for a mimium of two years. After distillation and during the ageing process the wine is known as eaux de vie. The contents of the barrels are then blended, mixing ages and sources to achieve the best balance. The product is then graded according to several Cognac standards, the best known of which are V.S. (very special or superior), V.S.O.P. (very special or superior old pale), and XO (extra old). A good entry level Cognac to start off with is the Hennessy Fine de Cognac, a delicate blend of some sixty floral, fruity eaux-de-vie pitched somewhere between VS and VSOP. For those looking to spend a bit more there is the very special Richard Hennessy. It is a unique blend of rare eaux-de-vie aged from 40 years to nearly 200 years old. Each carafe is numbered and made of pure hand-blown crystal. According to Talleyrand, celebrated 18th-century French politician and illustrious customer of Hennessy, to enjoy a cognac such as Richard Hennessy one must “cradle the glass in the palm of one’s hand, swirl the spirit to release its full aroma, lift it to one’s nostrils, inhale deeply and then… set it down and discuss its virtues”. One of those virtues being its three thousand euro price tag.
However, Maurice expressed his sadness at anyone buying it as an investment piece: “It is such a beautiful drink, it should not be left to simply sit on a shelf, it is made to be enjoyed”.
Maybe just drink it slowly so.
How to enjoy Cognac:
Asked how best to enjoy a Cognac, Maurice expresses his preference for long drinks: “Hennessy is wonderful in cocktails, and in fact Cognac and rum were the first two drinks ever used in cocktails. There are many great cocktails such as The Horse’s Neck, a racing cocktail we have during the Hennessy Gold Cup.”
The key to a Horse’s Neck is the lemon peel which hangs off the rim of the glass and resembles the neck of a horse hanging into the drink. Fill the glass with ice. Add 50ml of Hennessy Fine De Cognac, and 70ml of ginger ale. Stir well.
As for Frederic, his choice of how to drink Cognac is probably related to the fact that he resides in north Cork, not the south of France, so ice is not paramount: “I like to drink it straight – it is wonderful with elderflower, but you would not always have that in your fridge!”
Founded in 1765, Hennessy has launched a year of celebrations to mark its 250th anniversary under the signature “Crafting the future since 1765”. The rich lineup of events centers on the theme of transmission.
For 250 years, the history of Hennessy has been intimately linked to that of two families. First, the Hennessy family, which has proudly carried on the vision of the House’s founder, Richard Hennessy. An astute businessman, he recognized the potential of Cognac eaux-de-vie, as well as the advantages of the city’s strategic location on the banks of the Charente river, affording easy access to the ocean and international trade routes. Today, Hennessy is present on five continents and develops its business in more than 130 countries.
Since 1800, the Fillioux family has jealously guarded the secrets of selecting and assembling the eaux-de-vie that express Hennessy’s excellence. In the grand tradition of Hennessy milestone cognacs, Yann Fillioux, a seventh-generation member of the family and the current Hennessy Master Blender, has crafted Hennessy 250, an exquisitely refined cognac made from exceptional eaux-de-vie he personally selected during his 50-year career.
Hennessy has kicked off this year’s celebrations by unveiling the signature “Crafting the future since 1765”, a bold message of transmission that emphasizes the avant-garde vision Hennessy has pursued since its founding, inspired by talent and savoir-faire. The cornerstone of the festivities is the Hennessy Tour, which will stop in five countries with close ties to Hennessy: China, Russia, the United States, South Africa and France. From the Guangzhou Opera House and Lincoln Center in New York, to the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg, the over 600-square-meter traveling event presents Hennessy’s heritage through the eyes of contemporary artists whom the House supports. Each stop will feature local artists as well during live performances conceived specially for the event.
Hennessy is also launching a series of ambitious forward-looking projects in 2015. There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Pont-Neuf bottling site, which will ensure increased production and shipping capacity. In addition, Hennessy has acquired a 40-hectare (98 acres) site near Cognac where it will build more than 20 state-of-the-art cellars, doubling storage capacity. Other initiatives focus on the heritage of the House, with completion of the first stage in the Hennessy archives project scheduled for mid-year. A new tour of the centre of Cognac will be unveiled too, offering an unprecedented experience.
Footnote that obviously isn’t part of the article I sent to the paper:
After the interview I decided to try a local pub, see if I could get a Hennessy there. Of the five pubs in the village, three were closed permanently, and only one was open on the night. It was busy, all blokes, and someone whistled at me as I walked in, Wild West style.
Noticing that the bottles lined up on the plywood bar did not include any Cognac, I thought it better to just go native and have a Murphys. As I sat down to write up my notes from the interview, an elderly gent came over and asked me ‘if I was the taxman’. I told him who I was and why I was there. He asked where I was from, and then asked me if I knew any of the folks from my area.
‘Do you know the O’Briens?’ No, I did not. ‘Good, they’re fucking cunts. What about the O’Donovans?’ And so it went, with him asking me if I knew a succession of people who were all ‘cunts’. He noticed my terrible writing, and told me he had the shakes too. I said I was sorry to hear that. He said it was ok, he was still able to drive, and ‘to fuck’ and the ‘women think it’s a vibrator’. The conversation went downhill from there. He was very funny, but completely filthy. I asked if he drank Hennessy, he said no, he drank Powers – ‘I drink the litre bottles and I can still fuck after it’. Fair play, since he must have been about 75. Anyway, it was as good as sample of Killavullen nightlife as you would get, and it made the fact that the Hennessy empire started there all the more remarkable.
So I got to take part in the Irish Whiskey Academy here in my hometown, along with a bunch of whisk(e)y writers, bloggers and promoters. It was a lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in whiskey….and a grand to spare. This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner shortly before Christmas. The photos were all taken by me, which might explain why they are rubbish.
Every Christmas I watch Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the same sense of wonder I had when I was a kid. As someone cursed with a relentlessly sweet tooth, I still like to imagine that the inside of any factory that produces my favorite things would be as magical. Obviously tastes change and people grow, and after careful consultation with my cholesterol levels, I switched my allegiances to a more mature indulgence – whiskey. So to get access to a distillery is a treat indeed. The distillery is a mysterious thing. Access to any modern production facilities is a rare event; for members of the public it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of the inner workings of any plant; health and safety laws, Lean production and a wariness about transparency meant that unless you have Bosco’s Magic Door, you aren’t getting inside. But one of the greatest distilleries in the world is changing all that.
Midleton Distillery’s Irish Whiskey Academy opened in 2013, and since then it has educated and entertained hundreds of drinks professionals, writers, bartenders, and sales people. The scope of the academy is now being widened to include ‘amateur enthusiasts’ – or ‘lushes’, as we are better known – like myself. The academy building fittingly sits between the historic distillery building – now home to the heritage centre – and the newer plant which is one of the largest, most efficient in the world, having just tweaked their processes to see a reduction in energy requirements per litre of pure alcohol by a whopping 20%.
The academy itself is a converted grain manager’s office, and our tutor was Dave McCabe, whose youth belies his incredible breadth of knowledge. I was on the course with whiskey bloggers, writers and industry insiders, and no matter how obscure or scientific the question, he knew the answer. With beautifully illustrated chalkboards in the classroom section of the facility, he brought us through the history of whiskey – nationally, locally and globally – as well as a refreshingly straightforward breakdown of the production of whiskey in east Cork.
We started with a walkthrough of the old distillery, learning about how whiskey was produced on that site for 200 years. We passed the distiller’s cottage, where Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett was born and raised, through the courtyard where former distillery manager Sandy Ross landed after an exploding pot still blew him out a window, leaving him flat on his back on the cobbles. He was given the rest of the day off, but showed up for work the next day. It takes hard men to make the hard stuff.
Back in the classroom we covered the raw materials, as well as the brewing and fermentation process, then it was on with the high-vis vests, phones into the lockers and off to the new plant, where we visited the grains depot, brewhouse, fermentation facility, and even had a stillhouse meeting with current Master Distiller Brian Nation. Brian is a busy man, who switches between the scientific demands of running one of the biggest distilleries in the world and the promotional aspect of the job, sharing his knowledge and passion for whiskey around the globe. And he isn’t the only whiskey guru we had access to; we also met Kevin O’Gorman, a man who has so much energy and enthusiasm for his work that it’s hard to imagine him having the patience to watch a kettle boil. But patience he has. As Irish Distillers’s head of maturation, Kevin is charged with keeping watch over the thousands of barrels of alcohol as they slowly mature for the legally required minimum of three years – and often much longer. Kevin watches over the casks as they sleep through the years, monitoring room temperature as the wood of the staves slowly inhales and exhales the liquid, giving it colour, character and life. His domain is the warehouses packed with massive bourbon, port and sherry casks from around the world, loaded on pallets in lots of four, and then stacked seven high.
He watches on helpless as up to a percentage of each cask is lost to evaporation, an amount known as the angel’s share. As long as whiskey has been made, this has been part of the process. There is not way to stop it.
Another frustration comes in the repair of casks. Some of them simply can’t take the pressure of their sleeping brethren above, and begin to split. If the damage is small, and accessible to the master cooper, then it may be repaired. But if the split is bad, and the cask is behind or beneath many others, they simply have to let the pressure take its toll, and watch on as thousands of euro worth of whiskey seeps out. It’s can’t be an easy job.
We had a tasting with Kevin in one of the warehouses, number 42 to be precise, cracking open a port pipe, a sherry butt, and a bourbon cask. It’s hard to describe how special it was. There, in that vast modern cathedral, we filled glasses straight from the barrel, and stood there silently sipping, the only noise a sporadic beep from the security system off in the distance. The flavors of the whiskey was almost enough to make your ears pop.
Centuries ago, Irish monks copied the design of Moorish alembic stills to distill their ale into uisce beatha. Later, it was casked for storage, and whiskey as we know it was born. Not much has changed; the ingredient used by the epicurean alchemists in Midleton are the same – water, grain, wood and time. In a world obsessed with speeding up production, there is much to celebrate here. The race to the bottom in our demand for faster food and cheaper products has led to standards falling in both. Not so here – this may be a massive operation, but there is the same respect for the craft, the product and the consumer as there ever was. The academy is part of this celebration of tradition and technique – it has a level of openness, transparency and honesty that you will almost never encounter in large companies.
We rounded out the day with pot still tastings, then it was back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. Our lodgings were the aristocratic surrounds of the Castlemartyr Resort, a building whose history, like that of whiskey, is another rare blend of science and religion, having previously been home to Robert Boyle, of Boyle’s Law fame, and in later years becoming a Carmelite Monastery. Another part of the academy package is dinner in a premium restaurant – for us it was Ballymaloe, which so much has been written about I don’t need to add anything, other than it has to be experienced to be believed.
The following day we started with a coopering demonstration by master cooper Ger Buckley. Ger is a fifth generation cooper, and can take a barrel apart and put it back together in moments. He talked us through the craft and history of coopering, reinforcing the sense that little has changed in either the tools or the barrels themselves in centuries.
Afterwards we met with archivist Carol Quinn, who introduced us to some of the incredible characters, stories and history of Irish Distillers. She spoke about Paddy O’Flaherty, a consummate showman who understood the power of marketing and PR long before anyone else in the industry, to the point where the whiskey he sold took on his name – we even got to see the contract that allowed the company to use his name as a trademark. Carol is also recording the stories of the more recent characters, as she is recording an oral history of the formers workers in the Midleton plant, capturing all their stories and lore before it is all lost in the sands of time.
Then it was on to more tastings, site visits – including the spiritstore and casking facility – and lunch in the heritage centre, complete with ice cream cones served in Midleton Rare boxes.
Our last module was blending, where we were broken into teams of four and given four different types of spirits to make a single blend with. After much nose work, and even more tasting, my team finally came up with a blend of half sherry cask-aged pot still and half bourbon pot still. We even gave it a name – The Kurgan – which you will know from Scottish history as the Russian bad guy in Highlander. It even came with a tagline – ‘there can be only one’. Well, it was either that or ‘it will take your head off’.
We got samples of our blends to take home, and while I have yet to find the right occasion to enjoy mine, I have no doubt that the memories of an extraordinary few days in Midleton will last a lot longer. The lessons taken from the academy aren’t simply the science and the history of whiskey – it’s an appreciation of the drink itself, and what it means to the Irish people. Whiskey is liquid history. It records our highs and lows, our struggles and success, our innovation, creativity and strength of spirit. Its story is one of collisions and unions – between science and religion, alcohol and wood, empire and freedom, grain and water. The academy, nestled as it is between the past and future of Irish Distillers, teaches you how these elements blend together to make this most Irish of libations, its significance to our identity, and what is yet to come.
THE FACTS: A range of courses are available depending on the individual’s level of knowledge, with the first ‘Enthusiasts’ course taking place earlier this month. Participants have the opportunity to meet some of the distillery team, learn about brewing, fermentation, distillation and blending, watch a cooperage demonstration and enjoy a tutored whiskey tasting with one of the production Masters. As part of the package, participants will stay in five star accommodation, visit one of the area’s finest restaurants and at the end of the course, they will receive a personalised bottle of Irish whiskey.
One-day ‘Discoverer’ courses, for those who have minimal knowledge about Irish whiskeys but want to learn more, are available from February 2015 while four-hour afternoon courses are also available. See http://www.irishwhiskeyacademy.com/ for full details.