As monks go, St Columba was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. A great-great-grandson of High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, he once started a war over a copyright issue and ended up narrowly avoiding excommunication by exiling himself to Scotland. He sailed past Islay, where Irish monks introduced distilling to the Scots, and set up a Christian outpost on Iona, from where he set out to spread his faith.
But he is also remembered for being the first person recorded to have an encounter with the Loch Ness monster. He came across some Picts burying a companion who had been killed by a ‘water beast’ in the loch. Columba ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat on the other side – but the man was only halfway when a fearsome creature appeared.
Invoking the name of God, Columba formed the sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.”
The monster fled, but despite the fact that 1,500 years have passed since that account, and although Columba has largely been forgotten, Nessie’s legend shows no signs of diminishing. Loch Ness still seems a magical place, where the walls between our world and some fantasy kingdom are crumbling, where anything can happen. No wonder then that a family who have lived on the banks of the loch for 500 years have decided to try and capture some of the magic of its waters.
Lorien and Kevin Cameron-Ross, above, the founders and directors of Loch Ness Spirits, hand pick their own ‘black gold’ juniper and local botanicals from their land on the shores of Loch Ness. They then combine it with the water of the glen to create the limited edition ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin. Just 500 bottles of the first batch of ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin have been distilled.
Already an award winner, achieving a gold medal in ‘ultra-premium’ category and silver medal in the ‘London dry’ category of The Global Gin Masters Competition in June, ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin was described by the judges as “A sparkle of juniper mixed with earthy angelica and aromatic pine blossom.”
Co-creator Lorien: ‘Inspired by a local gin tour and noting how rare and precious juniper was, we got to thinking about the juniper around us when we walked the dog at home.
‘It has been a steep learning curve and we have worked extremely hard to hand pick the juniper and other botanicals, but we have made it, and are desperately proud of the result.
‘The family has been working the rugged shores of this loch for 500 years and this is just the next stage in that tradition of working the land. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it could be the most delicious thing we have produced in half a millennium!’
So what of the gin – it has a freshness on the nose that I wasn’t expecting, a real light air of lemongrass, with hints of fresh-cut fennel bulb. There is a definite menthol element that really lines it up as a palate cleanser – citrus notes, but with a hint of brine. The mouth is definitely a big departure – lots of cotton candy, a slight medicinal sweetness, leaving more of that initial citrus in its wake. A refreshing gin, served with too much tonic water and you might drown out some of the more hidden depths. I took this neat, then with ice, then tonic, and favoured a weightier measure of gin and less of everything else; like the beastie in the loch, it is an elusive sip that definitely needs more exploration.
As for Nessie, her enduring myth was revived recently by Ian Bremner, a distillery worker who took this photo:
Speaking after, Bremner said: “I suppose it could be seals – but I’m not so sure. The more I think about it, the more I think it could be Nessie” – proving that from St Columba to the Cameron-Rosses, all you need to make the waters of Loch Ness magical is a little faith.
What is a baseball bat? Is it a piece of sports equipment, used by athletes the world over, a symbol of the unifying power of team sports? Or is it a weapon, used by thugs the world over, a symbol of gang violence? Is it the embodiment of America’s national pastime – or is it something you use to smash a lackey’s head in, a la Al Capone in The Untouchables?
And speaking of being beaten over the head with a blunt instrument, this metaphor is pretty weak – but there is a better one.
The 21st amendment to the American constitution, passed in 1933, repealed Prohibition – the nationwide outlawing of alcohol – but some states still had the power to restrict or simply ban the sale of booze in all its forms. The last state to give up total Prohibition was Mississippi, which stayed dry until 1966. As a result, for those 33 years, alcohol was a hot topic for all Mississippi politicians. However, only one of them is remembered for a speech he gave on the subject.
Noah S. ‘Soggy’ Sweat Jr got his nickname from his mop of hair and its resemblance to the sorghum top, or sugar cane tassel, rather than his physical reaction to the oppressive heat of the deep south. In his life he was a judge, a law professor, and, briefly, as a young man, a state representative in Mississippi. In 1952, towards the end of his term, he gave a speech on the floor of the state legislature concerning alcohol sales, and specifically whiskey. At this stage he was used to being badgered by the Prohibitionists (the ‘drys’) and the repeal side (the ‘wets’) to give a solid opinion on the topic, and had spent long enough wrestling with the subject to come up with one definitive stance.
What he said became known as the ‘If By Whiskey’ speech and it came to symbolise how difficult a subject alcohol is for public representatives to discuss, as it also captures how we can hold two opposing views at the same time. Here it is in full:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
The speech is witty, poetic and moving. It sums up the pleasures and sorrows of alcohol and asks big questions about how we think about the issue – how often do you hear politicians talking about about the scourge of alcohol, as though the liquid itself was to blame? We talk about the negatives it as though ‘the drink’ takes control of us, like some sort of demonic possession, and exonerates us from any wrongdoing, and erases all choice we might have had in the matter. Yes, it diminishes our ability to make sensible decisions – but we choose to drink it knowing that. In fact, its ability to release us from the pressures of life is one of the things that makes it so important; but, like anything else that gets abused – drugs, food, sex – it does damage. It is in the abusing that all harm is done.
In Ireland we still wring our hands about alcohol abuse, despite the fact that our consumption of it is falling. According to Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners alcohol consumption in Ireland is down 25% since 2001 with consumption of beer and spirits down 40%.
There is always that moment of surprise when you see a table of nations and their alcohol consumption – we are rarely even in the top ten (it’s okay though, we are still higher than the UK).
So we are not the nation of alcoholics we sometimes like to think we are; booze plays a large role in our society, but that is changing. Consumption of alcohol in pubs is down 35 percent in the last decade. Against those figures, wine consumption is up, as we move towards drinking at home, a choice guided as much by the crackdown on drink-driving as it is by changing tastes.
There are bleating voices on both sides of the debate around alcohol – from the industry there is the usual cry of ‘blessed are the job creators’, as they roll out all the economic contributions they make to the State.
On the other side is the health campaigners, who bemoan the costs to our health service and to our society.
Like the If-By-Whiskey speech, both arguments are right – alcohol contributes huge sums to the economy, not least in taxes. Ireland has the highest priced alcohol in the EU, with the the second highest taxes on alcohol in the EU, according to Eurostat and the EU Commission. In 2014, the exchequer received €1.42 from every pint costing €4.64, (or 30.6% of the price) consumed in bars; €16.41 or 68.4% of the price of a €24 off-licence bottle of whiskey; and €4.50 or 64% of the price of a €7 off-licence bottle of wine. So it is already quite expensive to drink here, without even considering the flawed model of minimum unit pricing, itself a blunt tool that is effectively a class-based prohibition.
So taxes are high here, but the argument that ‘you can buy whiskey cheap in America so why not here’ is a facile one – try losing your job in America, or getting sick, or testing the state supports in any capacity before you praise their taxation regime. Booze has always been the taxman’s whipping boy – the very first tax ever levied by the American government was on whiskey, and it lead to what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. But the tax stood, and it was used to build their then fledgling nation. Taxes on alcohol are high in Ireland, but we have a high standard of living here – as someone who spent eight months on the dole last year, I was startled at just how generous the state was to my family and I.
Also, for the consumer to assume tax cuts would equate to price cuts is naive – particularly where whiskey is concerned, as like Stella Artois (before it went for sales volume over value), the average bottle of triple-distilled liquid silk is deliberately ‘reassuringly expensive’. And to those who say that the whiskey taxes are killing the industry here, the distillery boom we are seeing in the past four years show that high taxes on whiskey are no barrier to business.
So taxes are high, prices are relatively high, yet some people still drink too much – so how do you stop them? This is where the real issues surrounding alcohol come into play, and where Soggy Sweat’s words really ring true, because alcohol, like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, is an angel to some and a demon to others: It all comes down to choice.
National drug and alcohol policy is often based around the broad premise that substance abuse is about pleasure, rather than pain, or rather the escape from pain – subsequently, legislation often deals in broad strokes, such as minimum unit pricing or curfews on sales. These laws are a simplistic way of dealing with an incredibly complex issue, because – as pointed out in Ken Burns’s masterful documentary Prohibition – you cannot legislate for morals. You cannot outlaw dysfunction, you cannot go into every home and ensure that everyone has sufficient coping mechanisms to not fall into some sort of addiction.
A republic has to allow its citizens to make poor choices, even if those choices affect those around them and society as a whole. Walk the main street of any small town in Ireland and you will see just how good we are at making bad choices – chippers, pubs, offies and bookies; all offering products or services that are fine in small doses, but which can ruin lives.
My parent never drank much, my dad did a bit, my mum not at all. Like many Irish kids I was given a drop of whiskey for a sore tooth now and again, but generally I grew up in a pretty dry, intensely religious household. I started secretly drinking when I was 13, and was a frequent binge drinker by the time I was 15. I would steal money, go to Cork and buy flagons of cider and sit in Bishop Lucey Park drinking with a rotating cast of crusties, new age travellers, the destitute and the deranged. When I left school I worked in a kitchen, as cheffing was an industry where you can drink yourself into oblivion and nobody would take much notice. It is a period of my life I don’t look back on with any pleasure – it was a relentlessly grim cycle of broken relationships and self destruction. There was no joy, and if it had continued I have no doubt I would be dead now.
But things changed. I went back to college and although I still drank, it was in a fun, social way. As I got older my outings got rarer and rarer, and nowadays I just love a whiskey of two at the weekends.
Since I’ve been living with my dad and looking after him, I’ve been drinking more – in fact, almost every night. I spend my days looking after him, making his food and helping him about the house, managing hospital visits and dispensing his medication. It’s all straightforward stuff, and I am happy to do it; I’ve been looking after him for three months, he looked after me for about 40 years. My wife and kids had planned to move in, but we soon realised that the cacophony of our family would be too much for him, so I am here alone, watching him slowly die. His mind is starting to go, and I can feel him slipping away from me. Most days I just spend staring at him, missing him even though he is still here.
At night I go upstairs and open another one of the bottles I had been saving for a special occasion and have a good cut off it. And after the first few sips, I can feel the weight of sadness lift slightly, and I relax, even for an hour or two, and I drift from where I am. I watch a few Norm Macdonald videos or goof off on Twitter, and it takes me away. As Judge Sweat pointed out, whiskey enables me to magnify my joy, and my happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, one of my life’s great tragedies.
There are many who would point out that I am committing that terrible act – using alcohol as a crutch. But I need a crutch. If I don’t have something to quell my mind before bed, I would spend hours lying there, mentally drafting eulogies, occasionally sobbing. Whiskey is a salve on my emotional wounds. If I didn’t have that, I would be doing a lot worse than I am.
In my youth I used alcohol to harm myself – now I am using it to heal. But it is often used in this manner – in many hospitals alcohol is prescribed. I spoke to a doctor recently who told me that as a junior doc with the NHS in the early Nineties he used to regularly prescribe sherry, whiskey and Guinness to patients.
A physio told me that when she trained in a London hospital there was a patient in intensive care for a long period of time. His mood dipped and so he was prescribed a whiskey each evening. It worked, and his mood lifted. It didn’t stop him dying, but it made his demise that little bit more bearable.
In fact, Marymount Hospice – where my dad is headed soon – has a drinks trolley for patients, where you can have a pint or a whiskey of an evening.
Alcohol is a bridge from our own profane humanity to a divine plane where our troubles are diminished. For some, their troubles are such that they never want to return. For the rest of us, it’s simply a welcome few hours of escape.
Like a baseball bat, alcohol is a weapon if you choose to use it that way. Used right, it is one of life’s great joys, a thought reflected by the American baseball star Tug McGraw. After signing a lucrative contract, he was asked how he would spend his money. His reply was: “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other ten percent I’ll probably waste.”
You just can’t go wrong with Powers. It is my drink of choice on the rare occasion that I actually get out for the night. It’s easily found in most pubs, is reasonably priced, and – to my palate – packs a bigger punch than it’s more popular sibling, Jameson. I always think of Indian food when I see how the average consumer views whiskey – most people think Indian food is basically varying degrees of ‘curry’. Similarly, many people think all whiskey is basically just Jameson, with minor variations. It’s only once you start to explore either that you realise a whole world, previously hidden to you, was there all along.
Jameson, like many blends, is the tikka masala or korma of the whiskey world – the most common introduction to the field, by virtue of its mellow smoothness and accessibility. Powers is probably the dopiaza of the field – with more pot still whiskey, it carries a little more spice and an extra dimension than the world’s most popular Irish whiskey. Powers is a great next step into the whiskey world, but while I love it’s oldschool styling, the younglings might be put off by something that exhibits some of the visual keys of a tube of Euthymol. So pappa’s got a brand new bag:
Not just a slick new label, but some lovely glasswork, as befitting the elder statesperson of Irish distilling.
Here are the official details:
An Irish Icon Awakes
Introducing the new look Powers Gold Label and Powers Three Swallow Release
With over 200 years of heritage distilled into each bottle, the new look Powers Gold Label is as definitive now as it always was – a pot still style whiskey of superior quality and undisputed heritage since 1791.
While the aesthetic has changed, everything that makes Powers Gold Label the quintessential Irish whiskey has stayed exactly the same. True to the Pot Still style of the original distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin, Powers Gold Label is still triple distilled and matured in specially selected oak casks bursting with the same wonderfully complex and spicy flavor.
Powers reputation for excellence and innovation placed them at the forefront of Irish whiskey. In 1866, John Power and Son began bottling their own whiskey, which was unheard of before in Ireland, as it was usually sold by the cask. A gold label was entrusted on the bottle to signify premium quality and guarantee it had come directly from the John’s Lane Distillery, earning its name Powers Gold Label by loyal customers
The new look Powers Gold Label bottle will be officially unveiled at an exclusive event in Dublin in a specially created pop-up bar on Mercer Street, Dublin 2 on October 6th. The event will also give guests an exclusive preview and tasting of a brand new Powers Single Pot Still Whiskey expression, Powers Three Swallow Release ahead of its official launch later in the year.
As it enters the next phase in its iconic 224 year history, Powers Three Swallow Release, distilled and aged to perfection, is the 21st century embodiment of the traditional pure pot still whiskey style that has made Powers famous the world over.
Powers Gold Label is available in all leading on and off trade outlets, RRP €29.49
The new look carries a lot of the feel of the (incredible) John’s Lane Release:
POWERS Gold Label 700ml
John’s Lane Release
It’s interesting to see Irish Distillers doing things like this – there are going to be a lot of competitors in the market over the next decade, so they are really donning the warpaint. Modernising a classic is a brave move, but shows they are confident that they will reach new consumers rather than alienating an older generation who may not initially recognise their beloved brand of yore. It also builds a strong visual link between the various members of the Powers family – be it entry-point blend, or luxuriant single pot still.
Speaking of old people: I recently got some wonderful agitprop in the post:
Yes, I should have dusted the bottle before I took the photos, but you get the idea – a rock-solid Irish classic has got a well-deserved makeover. Also, this confirms that I am officially in the pocket of Big Whiskey and cannot be trusted. Vote IDL! Impeach Cooley! Etc!
There are things that I miss about being in a newsroom. The flow of insider information, the unprintable story behind the story, the kernels of truth you occasionally stumble across. It is like an addiction – once gone from it, you feel the withdrawal, you realise that you are now on the outside. But that isn’t necessarily the worst place to be, and definitely not in today’s media, where low sales are driving a race to the bottom, with everyone now chasing MailOnline and Buzzfeed’s business models of listicles, flesh, rage-bait and endless repetition.
However, one of the best aspects of journalism is the access it gives you; it places you in a position of extreme privilege – you get into places you shouldn’t, get offered things you don’t need, and generally can live a larger life than your wages would suggest. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Two years ago I was sent to an event in my hometown distillery called The Housewarming. It was being held to celebrate the massive expansion of the local distillery, but beyond that I didn’t know much else. I’m not sure what I expected, but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of it. Walking through the arch into the main courtyard behind the old distillery was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly blooms into Technicolor, or the first time Aldous Huxley dropped acid; I was, like Adam, seeing all of creation for the first time. After The Housewarming, I was hooked, and have been writing about – and loving – whiskey ever since. And so it was that I was one of only a few journalists to be invited to both the launch of the new micro distillery and celebration of Jameson’s rocketing sales – five million cases plus in 12 months.
The events in the distillery are pretty special – almost everything they do is delivered in epic widescreen, and this was no different. The first part of the evening was the launch of the microdsitillery, which has seen distilling return to the old distillery site for the first time in 40 years. In fact, this year marked a triple celebration for IDL – parent firm Pernod Ricard turned 40, the new Midleton distillery turned 40, and Master Distiller Brian Nation also hit the big four-O (I also turned 40 in August, but since I was on the dole, celebrations were muted).
Over the past couple of years, an old storehouse was renovated and turned into a small scale distillery – but one which was still larger than many of the new independent distilleries being set up around the country in the past 24 months.
After a drinks reception in the courtyard, we were ushered in to hear IDL CEO Anna Malmhake, Tánaiste Joan Burton and ‘micro-distiller’ (note: not an actual term) Karen Cotter speak about the new venture. Anna acted as MC, and Karen spoke first, giving a speech about her path to this point, about the distillery, her mentors and what the future holds. Given her young age – just 24 – it was remarkable to hear her speak with such clarity and self-confidence. It reinforced my view that she will be a very bright star in Irish whiskey.
Then it was the Tánaiste’s turn. Deputy Burton spoke about how her ancestors were coopers, having grown up near Bow Street distillery, and also about how important it is to have gender balance in the workplace – be it at the cabinet table, or in the distilling world. Then it was over to the stills to switch them on, one by one, at which point they lit up in sequence.
Here is some low-grade audio of part of Karen Cotter and Joan Burton’s speeches:
Whilst there I chatted to local politicians Deputy Sandra McLellan of SF, David Stanton of FG and fellow journalist Tomás Clancy of the SBP. It was great to finally meet Tomás, as we both used to be part of the same media group, and also because he is a great ambassador for whiskey. I had seen him speak at Ballymaloe LitFest with Dave Broom and he was great, really knowledgeable without beating you over the head with it. Top guy, and the SBP is a great paper.
I also chatted to Richard Forsyth of the legendary pot still makers Forsyths – the Rolls Royce of post still makers. I had met him at the Spirit Of Speyside gala in May so it was nice to meet him on my home turf. Speyside is incredible – if you ever get a chance to visit there during the whisky festival, do so. You won’t regret it. The festival is one of the rare occasions when you can get a tour of the massive plant in Rothes. As a Scottish engineering firm their main business is oil and gas – which occupies about 300 of their staff, while the distilling operation has 60 or so working in it. There is an impressive drone flyover of the facility to give you an idea of what they do.
During the Spirit of Speyside festival the town also hosts a tattie bogle contest – local businesses create scarecrows and hang them off buildings or in windows. It is goddam terrifying, like something from Tales Of The Unexpected or The League Of Gentlemen.
Also there was Bernard Walsh, head of the IWA and one of the ‘real deal’ distillers in Ireland at the moment. He is the man behind Writer’s Tears, to my mind one of the stand-out Irish whiskeys, not just for its fresh aesthetic and great name, but just because it is a great drink. Bernard’s new pot stills arrived from Rothes last week, so it’s an exciting time for him, the culmination of many years of hard work.
Then it was off to the buses to be ferried down to Warehouse 11, a functioning storage facility that they had transformed into an incredible venue for the evening. About 350 guests filed in, greeted with Jameson whiskey sours, and then on a massive screen we were shown DJ Kormac talking about a commission he was given to create a track from the sounds of the distillery. He talked about his methods as they cut in footage from barley fields, and then he and singer Vivienne Long took to the stage to unveil their track. No wonder he is so skinny with all the frenetic work he does behind his electronics.
Then the screen lifted and we were in the venue proper, with names and tables assigned on a screen. Somehow I managed to locate mine, right up the front near the stage, perfect if i got carried away and wanted to start a moshpit or possibly stage dive onto some marketing people. The meal itself was spectacular, these massive outside events mean you need to set up mobile kitchens in the middle of nowhere and bus in an army of wait staff and chefs. Sometimes this can result in sub standard food, but not in this case; every part of the meal was incredible, really interesting food, beautiful, inspired presentation, and wait staff who were incredibly patient with my increasingly terrible banter: ‘Still or sparkling water sir?’ ‘Sparkling – LIKE MESELF’. I wonder how many times that poor person had to hear that jape in a single night. I was sat next to a member of the Irish Whiskey Association, which much like its Scottish counterpart is mainly involved in protection of intellectual copyright and maintaining the integrity of the Irish Whiskey brand. They make sure that you don’t end up with some low grade hooch from outside the country being passed off as ‘ye olde Oirish whiskey’ as it will devalue the entire category.
Also sat next to me was the Jameson Ambassador to Tokyo, a 23 year old Arts graduate from Wicklow, who possessed the rare (Irish) skill of being able to speak fluent Japanese. He spoke about his work, his projected aims and the brand’s target demographics. It was an amazing insight into a job that seems like it might be akin to being Duffman from The Simpsons, but is actually a lot more sophisticated, nuanced and involves a lot less booze than you would think. He has his work cut out for him – in a fast-paced and somewhat alien cultural landscape (one with a fantastic indigenous whisky scene), trying to attach yourself to the zeitgeist will be akin to catching a bullet between your teeth. But it will still be some incredible adventure for a young man.
Throughout the event there was incredible live music on stage – Lisa Hannigan, an orchestra playing popular classics (and grunge), and a harpist who would give Tony Iommi a run for his money.
After dinner we were treated to three new whiskeys from the distillery, each curated by a master – Master Cooper Ger Buckley’s the Cooper’s Croze, Master Distiller Brian Nation’s Distiller’s Safe and Master Blender Billy Leighton’s Blender’s Dog, three exclusive blends named after the respective tools of the masters’ trades.
We were asked to sample them, discuss and compare, which we duly did. Then the massive screens flared into life, and a short film about the trio began, showing them getting ready in their various domains, which then cut to a live feed of them walking into through the massive doors of Warehouse 11, all conducted to the strains of Arcade Fire. We toasted them, had a dram, and Hermitage Green took the stage, playing into the night.
CEO of Pernod Ricard, Alex Ricard, also spoke at the event. Last year he talked about the definition of craft and what it means. It has become increasingly obvious that craft, artisan and small batch are products of marketing teams and have lost much of their meaning. However, the consumer is getting canny – Templeton Rye was hit with a massive class action lawsuit over claims their whiskey was small batch, when actually it was sourced from a large-scale production facility. So when Midleton created a micro-distillery, they made sure to avoid the computer terminal controls you see in larger facilities, and instead opted for manual controls. The same goes for Ballindalloch in Speyside – they deliberately went for full manual controls to keep a down-home feel to their single estate distillery.
Alex Ricard posed the question – ‘what is craft?’ Is it the centuries that Irish people have been making whiskey, is it the incredibly history of the drink on this island, and at what point does a facility stop being ‘craft’? Is it a question of size and scale, is it to do with technology? Is there less craft in a large plant than in a garage-based operation? How is that so? Can a multi-national own a craft distillery – is it a question of economics? Most modern food and drink operations operate like pharma plants – is there a chilling effect in this system? Would you enjoy your drink more if you thought some chap made it in his shed? Or is it simply a question of aura, of exclusivity, of rareness? As a species we tend to hate the modern age, and yearn for some pre-industrial idyll that never existed; a simpler time when the noble farmer toiled the land before going home to read Chaucer by candlelight and die of natural causes at 40. We are bemused by the trainspotters and their passion for engineering – but not by people who go to art galleries. Modern engineering is a beautiful thing – be it the micro distillery or the bigger sibling that produces much of the world supply of Irish whiskey.
Mr Ricard also spoke about how everyone present on the night had a personal connection to Jameson – they have their pet names for it, their favourite way to drink it, their stories about how they started getting into whiskey. The jaded cynic in me might raise my eyes, but in a way he was right. Like Jameson, I am from Dublin originally, but spent the last 40 years in east Cork. My mother was a 19 year old from Sherriff Street in the north inner city, who grew up close to the old premises of Haig And Haig, and a few doors down from St Laurence O’Toole Church, supposedly built over old whiskey stores, which has led to the crypts still carrying a lingering hint of the angel’s share. She put me up for adoption, and after six weeks I was brought home by my mum and dad. After a brief stint in Kerry, we moved to Midleton, where my dad worked in the bank that lies just downriver from the distillery.
I grew up in a house overlooking the distillery, halfway between there and the new maturation sites in Dungourney. As a kid I swam and fished in the same river that they make all those incredible whiskeys from, and later I went to school just over the wall from the distillery in Midleton College. If you ever visit the Garden Stillhouse, see if you can find the sinkhole nearby, which leads to the underground stream from which the distillery takes some of its water. The stream travels under the wall and into the school grounds, and over the years pupils used to dare each other to travel through the pitch black cave network and up into the distillery – despite the fact that for some of the 50 yards or so you would be chest-deep in ice-cold water. My parents sent me to this expensive, private school – and they worked hard to pay for it. My dad loved whiskey – the first article I wrote for the Irish Examiner was about The Housewarming, but also about my dad, and in it I told this story: When I was about 10, my mother had a massive brain haemorrhage. She was given 24 hours to live. My dad went to the hospital chapel and made a deal with God – he would give up his beloved whiskey if mum pulled through. She duly did, and he hasn’t touched a drop since. She passed away nine years ago now, but he still won’t drink it as he says ‘a deal is a deal’.
It sounds like bunkum, but I like this story because it tells you the kind of guy my dad is. Part of my love of whiskey comes from him, and from suddenly having that strange epiphany when you realise that your dad is a great guy. He grew up in an Ireland that has thankfully almost completely disappeared – his dad used to come home, eat dinner, then go to the pub. His father once told him about the hilarity among his friends when they saw a friend of their’s pushing a buggy. Fathers back then earned the money and that was about it. The kids were women’s work. But my dad was always there for me, as I crashed headlong through life. Despite the fact that I often made terrible choices, he supported me no matter what. Whiskey to me is a symbol of all that is great about him – of being a good father, a good husband, a good human being. It represents the slow joy of growing old, of maturity. It’s about the simple pleasure of a mind-unclenching, blood-warming drink whilst surrounded by your family as they bicker about X Factor or try to figure out what the hell was going on in Age Of Ultron. It’s a celebration of making peace with this world. I have enjoyed constant privilege – from the luck of being a journalist to the childhood I had. I went down Sherriff Street for the first time this summer to see the old family home, to see where at least part of me is from. The area is a ghetto, fenced in by the ugly opulence of the IFSC on one side and, on the other, a canal, which once brought so much wealth and industry to the area, now filled with rubbish. While we were down there a child shot at the car with a BB gun. We didn’t stick around for long. It was a sobering reminder of how lucky I am, in all aspects of my life. I have tasted amazing whiskeys, seen amazing things and met amazing people over the last few years, and the event in Midleton last month was a reminder of all my good fortune – of growing up in the home of Irish whiskey, in a house filled with love and unopened bottles of Jameson, because, as my dad says, a deal is a deal.
Lawson Whiting, Brown-Forman’s chief brands officer, told DI the company’s family structure enabled it to “think long term” in the Irish whiskey category and with sustained investment over “20, 30, or 40 years” build Slane Whiskey in to a “global brand”.
Brown-Forman has experience distributing Irish whiskey in the US, as the former distributor of Bushmills in the market.
Whiting said Brown-Forman had “looked at mothballed distilleries” in Ireland before announcing in June to create its own distillery in the grounds of Slane Castle.
Brown-Forman’s first release will be from bought-in Irish whisky stocks, with Whiting arguing that consumers would not be confused by a change in taste profile when the Slane-produced whiskey is released in a few years. “We will be making lots of different styles of whiskey; consumers love to try other things,” he said.
Hell yeah. Provided ‘other things’ isn’t code for ‘shitty RTDs’. In which case, no. Also, bleurgh.
A nice PR shot of me mincing across the floor at last year’s Irish Whiskey Live with some sheets of paper and zero mates. This year I am going to be there again, but this time I am dragging my brother in law along so I don’t look like a total sad case. That said, I had a ball last year, having the bants with stallholders from far and wide and chatting to other geeks about whisk(e)y. Anyway, this year sounds rocking: Here’s the deets –
The best of Irish and International whiskey will be celebrated as Whiskey Live returns to Dublin for the fifth time on Saturday 24th October in its new city centre location of The Printworks at Dublin Castle, Dublin 2. The move to this new location has allowed the event to grow to accommodate up to 1200 visitors over two sessions 1.30-5.00pm and 6.00-9.30pm. Tickets are limited and available from www.whiskeylivedublin.com.
Whiskey Live Dublin showcases an eclectic collection of whiskeys from around the world, along with great food pairings, cocktails and a range of entertaining master classes to learn more about whiskey. This year also sees the introduction of craft gins and vodkas, reflecting the continuing growth of distilleries and the whiskey industry in Ireland.
Visitors will have the unique opportunity to sample whiskeys, whiskey cask-matured craft beers, whiskey cocktails and other Irish spirits and liqueurs whilst mingling with their producers and distillers. Among the large variety of exhibitors are Nikka Japanese, Wild Beech Leaf Liqueur, Kilbeggan Distillery, Teeling Distillery, Dingle Gin & Vodka, Glendalough, Longueville House Apple Brandy, Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Ireland (Midleton, Redbreast, Powers), Isle of Arran, Saint Patricks Distillery, Walsh Whiskey and Bulleit Bourbon.
Mixologists from Koh Bar, Bull & Castle and Native Blenders will be at hand serving up samples of delicious Irish whiskey cocktails. A selection of Dublin’s best restaurants, including Koh Bar, L Mulligan Grocer and FXBs will present a menu of delicious food pairings to match the excellent whiskeys. Whether you are a whiskey enthusiast, an uninitiated newcomer or just looking for a day out that offers you something different, Whiskey Live is an inspiring experience.
Organiser Ally Alpine of The Celtic Whiskey Shop commenting on the event says; “This year’s line up of exhibitors is the strongest Dublin has ever seen and it really reflects the new investment and energy in the Irish whiskey category. Over recent years there has been significant interest in Irish whiskey globally and this is evident in how this indigenous industry has grown and will flourish over the next decade.”
Tickets for Whiskey Live Dublin are priced at €39.50 plus booking fee with The Celtic Whiskey Shop donating €10 per ticket to Down Syndrome Dublin. Tickets are available via www.whiskeylivedublin.com or from the Celtic Whiskey Shop, 27-28 Dawson Street, Dublin 2, or by phone at 01-675 9744. Visit www.whiskeylivedublin.com for more details
Confirmed exhibitors to date include:
Adam Elmegirab Bitters
Celtic Whiskey Club
Celtic Whiskey Shop
Dingle Gin & Vodka
Gordon & MacPhail
Great Northern Distillery
Irish Whiskey Awards
Irish Whiskey Society
Isle of Arran
Lexington Brewing & Distilling
Longueville House Apple Brandy
Saint Patricks Distillery
Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Ireland (Midleton, Redbreast, Powers)
I interviewed this remarkable young woman last week and it went into print today, but due to space restraints they had to cut it in half. So here it is in full:
The summer of 1975 wasn’t a particularly remarkable one. The somnambulist prog of 10CC’s I’m Not In Love topped the Irish charts, there were lightning storms across the country and in the Munster Final between Cork and Kerry, sparks flew between Páidí O Sé and Dinny Allen. And in an east Cork town, one of the longest surviving distilleries in Ireland stopped producing whiskey. The stills fell silent in Midleton on a Friday afternoon, after 150 years of distilling on the site, and the (largely male) workforce trudged through the gates for the last time. Then, on the following Monday morning, they all showed up for work in the brand new, state of the art distillery to the rear of the old site, and the firm has never looked back since.
The old distillery was turned into one of southern Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, and the new plant has been the home of Irish whiskey for the last four decades.
But distilling is coming back to the old Midleton distillery, and this time it is not being overseen by the curmudgeonly, cloth-capped chaps of yore, but by a 24-year-old engineering graduate named Karen Cotter. If she has a sense of her importance in the male-dominated history of distilling, she doesn’t show it.
For centuries, the entire whiskey industry has been almost exclusively male – from the barley famers, to the distillers, to the consumers, it was a man’s drink in a man’s world. But this young north Corkwman’s role as the head distiller of the new micro distillery in Midleton is a sign of changing times. She became part of Irish Distillers Limited through their graduate programme, which enables science grads to get a taste for the life of the distiller.
And while chemical engineering might not be a course you would associate with edibles, food and drink play a bigger part than you would think: “Across chemical engineering there would be three mains facets – energy, pharma, and food and drink. I had steered myself away from the biopharma unit because I thought I loved chemistry and then I got to college and realized I didn’t, so when the placement with IDL came up I put my name forward for it.”
But this is no ordinary course – the modern distiller needs to be a scientist and a masterful communicator too – so the application process includes submitting a video. This is Karen’s one:
This blend of an enthusiasm for science and communication skills may explain why seven of the last eight graduates from the programme have been female: “There were plenty of guys at the interview days, but it is a tough interview process – first you have to make a video as to why you should be chosen and after that there is two round of interviews, so I don’t know if it is that girls are more open to doing the video in the first place, and then there is presentations and things like that involved in the process.
“It’s tough – but you can see their thought processes behind it, the job description states that they want someone who is witty, charismatic – they are looking for a personality as well as the education behind it, because you could end up with a role like this where you need to be able to communicate effectively. That’s not to suggest that that is why guys haven’t got through, but the initial idea could put a lot of men off applying.”
But women have another advantage when it comes to distilling: Research released last year by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil revealed why women perform better in scent tests – they have more cells in the part of the brain that controls the ability to smell. It’s believed that this olfactory superpower helps mothers bond with their babies, and also helps them select a mate. It just happens that they are also naturally gifted when it comes to discerning aromas in whiskey. But developing a nose for this spirit, which has one of the most complex flavor profiles in the world, can often pose a challenge for newcomers.
“I’m still working on it; for whiskey it is a very specific set of aromas that you are working with, I’m on the distillery tasting panel – every charge that is bunged, every tanker that goes out, it is nosed by at least two if not three people, and it can’t be released from the site until that has happened, until it has been compared against the standard to see if it is perfect. So that is how I am learning to get into the scents more, where I am now at the stage where I can tell if there is a difference with something, but I’m still working on putting words to the senses.
“Also, if you’re nosing whiskey, it is very subjective, it depends what you’ve been exposed to; fruity notes are one of the things that are synonymous with whiskey, but I don’t like fruit that much, but because I can smell fruit I can still get it, but there are other people who would be more adventurous with their food and they would get different aromas.”
Of course, having Midleton’s Master Distiller Brian Nation to mentor you also helps: “Brian has been the only boss I have ever had, because of the placement and then being taken on under the programme.
“Brian is terrific, he really is. Considering he came from the same background I did, chemical engineering, he knows what areas I would be stronger in and in what areas I might need a little help, and his vast experience through working here over the years.
“He knows everything from the grain intake, to the cask filling, he has an incredible overview – and because of that he will be so helpful with the micro distillery, and even more so when it grows to have the micro brewery as well – he has the full spectrum of experience.
“And there is also Dave Quinn, he is also involved, all those years of experience – they know everything there is to know about distilling.”
The microbrewery means that the wort, a weak beer which is then distilled to make the spirit, can be adjusted via different brewing techniques or even different grains.
But as for recipes, they already have a few up their sleeve: “We are lucky as our archivist Carol Quinn came across a notebook recently and it was John Jameson’s son’s notebook from 1826s, and it details a lot of the recipes they were trying at the time, and the different ratios of the grains, what grains they used, a lot of different parameters that they would have adjusted, trying to find a new blend, so we will be trying some of those recipes to see what we will come out with, or if we can replicated something that they would have made back in the day.
“We obviously won’t know if it exactly the same, and it is a long waiting period (three years ageing minimum) so it’s trial and error now and then we won’t know for a very long time. But as it is such a small batch they will age it for much longer than three years.
“And if it is a success it could be replicated in the main distillery on a larger scale.”
A lost notebook suddenly discovered just in time for a micro-distillery launch? Sounds like marketing bumpf, but Karen swears it is not: “I didn’t believe it either, but our archivist showed it to me, and it is in very good condition despite its age, because the paper back then was made from linen so it lasted much better than our paper today. They obviously don’t use the metric system, so it is hard to differentiate what they are saying, so Brian and I spent a bit of time going through it trying to figure it out. “
And as for Karen’s family, they are proud as (whiskey-based) punch: “They were delighted; dad’s always had an interest in whiskey, and then more as Jameson upped their marketing a few years before I got my placement he had gotten a bit more into it, so he was absolutely delighted.
“Since then I introduced him to more, each year I give him a new bottle, the first it was Black Barrel, then last year it was Jameson Gold Reserve, so I will probably cap it fairly soon as I can’t be spending that much money!
“But they are delighted – it is something so different and they can actually tell their friends what I do – it’s not like an obscure office job, they know exactly what my job entails because I can bring them here and show them. They are very proud – it’s not exactly what they expected I would be doing after college though!”
As for whether they know how important her place in history is – as the first Irish woman in charge of a distillery – they are starting to realize their daughter is a rather big deal: “I don’t think so I haven’t really said much about that, but I think when I was describing the launch they started to wonder ‘what is she at down here at all, I thought she was an engineer, why is she doing interviews and why is she picking out an outfit.’ “
After the gala launch yesterday, attended by the Tánaiste Joan Burton, there will be little doubt that this is a pivotal moment for Karen and her family – and for Irish whiskey itself.
Mad Men, dames and hipsters: The evolution of whiskey’s demographics
Historically whiskey was considered a man’s drink – the fire and heat of a first sip of the hard stuff was seen as being too intense for the gentler sex. The role women played in the early days of whiskey was often in opposition to it via the Temperance movement and driving the subsequent Prohibition act in the US. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill – himself an enthusiastic whiskey drinker – saw the revenue that could be created for the war effort via the Scotch industry. American GIs fell in love with the drink, and kept that love when they went home. Scotch became tied into notions of the heroic male, home from the war after serving his country – Don Draper’s messy personal life is oiled with the golden liquid. But the rise of Irish whiskey in the past decade has a lot to with a subculture that Draper’s era would have despised – hipsters. They took old tropes of Victorian masculinity – bushy moustaches, sailor tattoos, hard liquor – and played with them, making them the iconography of the flaneur and the modern dandy. Scotch was, however, ‘too mainstream’ so the hipsters of Brooklyn and all the other gentrified ghettos of cool around the world took Irish whiskey as their own. We were the underdog – but thanks to them, but not any more: The launch of the micro-distillery in Midleton also coincided with Jameson selling five million cases of Jameson in the past 12 months – a staggering 60 million bottles. Now we are truly the mainstream.
So I went to the launch of the new micro-distillery in Midleton last night. Terrible photos above that completely fail to do it justice, will stick up decent ones and some more details when I get a chance. Article on the young lady in charge of the facility goes into the Irish Examinertoday. I’m tired, and happy.
I took part in the Dingle Distillery whiskey school – it’s a great way to spend a couple of days in an amazing part of the country. I highly recommend it. The article ran in the Irish Examiner over the summer, but here it is in full.
If Oliver Hughes has a crystal ball, he isn’t telling – and as a former criminal barrister, his poker face is probably more resilient than most. But the evidence suggests that he might.
Exhibit A: Back in 1996, before micro breweries were becoming such an industry that they were getting tax breaks in the budget, Oliver and his cousin Liam LaHart decided to set up the Porterhouse. Oliver had seen the success of micro-breweries in the UK and decided the stagnant beer market here could do with some revitalizing. Many thought he was mad – the notion that a pub could survive without serving big brand beers on draught was completely alien. Some publicans began betting amongst themselves on how long it would last – six months, maybe a year. But last he did – in fact, the Porterhouse thrived, and expanded.
Exhibit B: Oliver had another idea – open a distillery. The current liquid gold rush in Ireland has seen big hitters investing here in the past 12 months, with up to 25 distilleries in various stages of development. But Oliver’s vision of an independent Irish distillery came long before the current boom. In fact, it was more than a decade ago that he first envisioned it. As for the reasoning behind his startling act of foresight: “Well distilling is actually a lot easier than brewing, so it just made sense,” is his reply.
‘Easy’ it may be, but he still brought in some expert help. John McDougall is one of the few people alive who has worked across all the whisky regions of Scotland and across multiple styles, and he helped design and set up the distillery. And as for its location, in beautiful Dingle, Oliver’s explanation is just as deceptively straightforward: “I came to Dingle with my then-girlfriend-now-wife 30 years ago and fell in love with the place, so it was perfect.”
But it isn’t just the romance of Dingle that makes a difference – the distillery sits next to the estuary of Dingle harbor, warmed by the briney, balmy airs of the Gulf Stream and the temperate microclimate it creates in west Kerry. Whiskey ages faster in the warmth here; and the barrels will absorb sea air, brushed by the occasional cool breeze drifting down from the mountains. Whiskey from Dingle will never be the same as whiskey from Dublin, or Belfast, or any of the other traditional centres of distilling in Ireland. Or at least that is what you would expect, as their spirit has not yet reached the three years minimum spent in a cask, a period which imparts almost 80% of the flavor.
All this detail may seem confusing to the average consumer, but Oliver’s distillery is hoping to educate the public on the who, what, why and when of Irish whiskey. The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy is two days of hands-on training in this most ancient – and Irish – of arts. What marks this academy out is the fact that it is entirely conducted within the distillery itself – as you are learning the theory you are also seeing it happen in front of you. This is no sterile classroom setting, far from reality– this is right in the beating heart of a busy operation. As you absorb the lore of distilling you are inhaling the evaporated spirit (known as the angel’s share), with lessons occasionally interrupted by the sound of clanking pipes.
The tutor for the academy is Michael Walsh, who at just 25 must be one of the youngest in the world to assume the role of Master Distiller. Most of the distillery staff are young men who would have emigrated if it hadn’t been for Oliver’s vision, a fact that distillery manager Mary Ferriter is quick to point out. Mary was our host for the two days of the academy – serving Dingle Gin and tonics during lunch on the lawn outside, next to the old waterwheel that powered the sawmill that once occupied the building. Mary is as warm and enthusiastic as you would expect from someone who once ran a year-round Christmas shop named Dingle Elf. Like all the distillery staff, Mary is a multi-tasker – she also delivers their award-winning Dingle Gin and Dingle Vodka to outlets along the peninsula, like a legitimate Dukes Of Hazard. On one run to Castlegregory we travelled over the Conor Pass, far above valleys littered with remnants of Famine villages, places so isolated they are almost cut off from the rest of the world. Even in this day and age, access to broadband is a problem down here. But the community understands the importance of banding together – they are all behind the distillery, and proud to support it.
Within Dingle itself there is a growing whiskey scene. Dick Mack’s pub recently won Munster Whiskey Pub Of The Year and then went on to win the national title – manager Finn MacDonnell the latest in his family to run the pub, founded by his family more than a century ago. It boasts an incredible array of Irish and international whiskeys, including a bottle of 1973 Midleton, a measure of which costs 200 euro. Many recession-scorched Irish people may balk at that price, but while I was there one American tourist paid the asking price and more in dollars for a single dram. Finn’s selection of whiskeys was co-ordinated with help from Peter White, a Dublin firefighter by day (and night) and whiskey guru by night (and day). Peter, the current president of the Irish Whiskey Society, frequents Dingle a lot, as his mother hailed from the village, and is just one of the whiskeyvangelists promoting our national drink out of sheer love for it.
Another enthusiast is John Moriarty of The Park Hotel Kenmare and Dublin Bar Academy, who is also one of the tutors in Dingle Distillery. John and Michael work like a tag team, talking us through the history of distilling, from Irish monks adapting Mooirsh alchemists’ equipment, to the revolution of the column still, the rise of blends, the decline of Irish whiskey in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and on to the present day – which is seeing Irish whiskey become the fastest growing spirit in the world. They also talked us through the lexicon – single malt, pure pot still, wort, mashtun, draff, feints, low wines, cuts, non-age statements – and on to the different types of cask used.
We also got to fill a cask each – not to take home sadly. Putting a hose in a barrel and pulling a lever might seem like a straightforward task, but this writer still managed to spray the exterior of the barrel, himself and the master distiller in one fell swoop.
But as the last module of my two-day experience at the academy, I think I still graduated. As for the Dingle whiskey, we will just have to wait – it reaches legal age at the end of this year, with a release expected early next year. But you don’t need a crystal ball to know that as the first independent Irish whiskey in a long time, this is going to be one special release.
The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy runs on the following dates: August 12th & 13th; October 27th & 28th; November 18th & 19th; December 16th & 17th. The two days cost €450, while the distillery tour is €10 per person. For more info email email@example.com or call: 086 777 5551 or 086 829 9944.
More like Sons Of Wankery, amirite? Anyway, it’s this:
It was not so much the Angels’ Share, more the “Hell’s” Angels’ Share as Speyside Distillery crossed to the dark side to launch its new black whisky – Beinn Dubh – at Europe’s biggest Harley Davidson motorcycle rally today (30 August, 2015).
The single malt was unveiled to over 3,000 motorbike enthusiasts who gathered in Aviemore in the Cairngorms – the home of the tiny boutique distillery – for the annual Thunder in the Glens event.
Speyside Distillery CEO John Harvey McDonough says there was no better platform to launch Beinn Dubh than at the biker rally, which draws Harley enthusiasts and visitors from all over the UK and Europe.
He adds, “Whisky drinkers know all about the Angels’ Share – the term for the whisky that evaporates into the atmosphere during maturation – but with the launch of our new whisky at a motorbike rally, it’s possible that the angels who were looking over Beinn Dubh were wearing black leathers and biker boots.
“Visitors to Thunder in the Glens have been able to sample Beinn Dubh over the weekend, and the feedback is that it’s a heavenly dram. The colour of the whisky – a very rich ruby-black – has been a real talking point.
“We feel honoured to be part of this fantastic event. There has been an incredible atmosphere in Aviemore, and we are delighted that our new friends from Thunder in the Glens have been among the first people in the world to sample this new single malt.”
Beinn Dubh was the name given to Ben Macdui – the highest peak in the Cairngorm mountain range – by Professor Norman Collie after his solo climb to the summit in 1891. It translates from Gaelic as the black mountain – a reference to the mystical and spooky atmosphere Prof Collie encountered on Ben Macdui.
Speyside Distillery wanted to recreate the essence of the black mountain in a bottle, and Beinn Dubh was born. It gets its unusual colouring because it has been finished in toasted port casks from the Douro Valley in Portugal.
Speyside Distillers Ltd managing director Patricia Dillon says, “Like the mountain, the whisky is dark and mysterious. It is very much the whisky of the Cairngorms – the water used in its production is from the Black Mountain itself, and the malted barley is sourced locally.
“We are deeply passionate about the Cairngorms and our links to this area: the landscape, the history and the people are very much part of the distillery’s story. The Cairngorms is a truly magical place and I can understand why thousands of bikers come to Thunder in the Glens to ride through this beautiful area.”
George McGuire, rally co-ordinator for Thunder in the Glens, says visitors were intrigued by the brand new expression from Speyside Distillery.
“It’s a fantastic dram and the colour is so unusual; no one has ever seen anything quite like it. If any whisky was to represent the Cairngorms – this incredible part of Scotland where people come from all over to ride – then it is Beinn Dubh,” he says.
Beinn Dubh’s taste is deep and dark: rich fruits, currants and chocolate dominate at first, but these gradually give way to both bitterness and sweetness. Beinn Dubh is 43% ABV and the 70cl bottle has an RRP of £50.
Speyside Distillery near Kingussie has been in production since 1990 and is operated by Speyside Distillers Ltd. For further information about Beinn Dubh, visit www.beinndubh.com.
I was at Speyside Distillery earlier this year, so here’s a million photos:
My article on the Spirit Of Speyside whisky festival in Scotland went into Saturday’s Irish Examiner, naturally they had to trim it as I had written The Lord Of The Rings, so I’m posting the full version here. I wrote a separate blog post about it here, which covers all the events I attended, and has tons of photos, but is not as ‘journalisty’ as this.
There is a large clock tower standing in the centre of the village of Dufftown in the Scottish highlands. Over the years the building has been home to the council chambers, a prison, and a place of execution – a role that earned it the title of The Clock That Hanged MacPherson, after it hosted the dispatching of a local Robin Hood-style highwayman.
And, despite being the most conspicuous point in the area, it once hosted an illicit whisky still. The Highland distillers were a cunning and canny lot, finding all sorts of ways to evade the taxman – which might explain why a perennially cute Kerryman was brought in to keep an eye on them. But Listowel native Maurice Walsh, famed for writing The Quiet Man, was swept away by the beauty of the place, finding inspiration for some of his best works – and finding a wife – while stationed as an exciseman, or gauger, on Speyside.
Standing in front of the clock tower on May 1st last as the snow fell around me, it wasn’t hard to see why he fell for it. Speyside is a Garden Of Eden for distillers. The River Spey languidly coils along the wide glacial plane of the valley, having made it’s way down from the snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorms mountain range. The limestone bedrock filters the water making it pure and hard, perfect for distilling, resulting in the area having the highest concentration of distilleries anywhere in the world, a fact that is celebrated in May of each year with the Spirit Of Speyside whisky festival.
Just as a distillery’s master blender can take disparate elements and use them to balance each other into a perfect harmony, the festival manages to combine distillery tours, tastings, food, drink, music, dance, crafts and outdoor activities to create an experience like no other.
I was in Dufftown for an important event in the local hall – a contest to decide which of four whiskies went best with a bacon roll. On a snowy morning in the Highlands, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to be doing – having four nips of great whisky and a bacon buttie at 10am. The famously temperate microclimate of Speyside doesn’t always reach into the mountains, so a warming drink and munchies were definitely the order of the day.
The event was organized by Mike Lord, a former comedy club host and one-time neighbor of Graham Norton, who gave up his job in the city to take on the Whisky Shop in Dufftown. Mike takes his whisky seriously – as he explained to us at the start of the tasting, there would be no ketchup or brown sauce in the bacon roll, as ‘this was science’. After we had made our choices – mine being a fruity, rosé-tinted, port-finished single malt – we strolled along to the Whisky Shop itself to take part in a blind tasting of seven independent bottlings – whisky that is purchased direct from the distilleries by independent firms. The store was packed with Americans, Germans, Scandinavians – but Dufftown is used to visitors from afar, for it was here that Sirius Black was first sighted after he escaped from Azkaban in the third Harry Potter movie.
After sampling the magnificent seven malts, we were magically spirited away to another scenic village – Aberlour, home to both a wonderful distillery, and also the Walker shortbread factory; a match made in heaven. The distillery was the venue for an evening of music and whisky hosted by Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, two former record label talent scouts, who guided us through a pairing of Johnny Cash, Carole King, Pink Floyd and David Bowie with whiskies that reflected both their music and personalities – and not a Proclaimers track in sight.
Aberlour distillery was founded by James Fleming, who not only made great whisky but also engaged in much philanthropic work – a fact reinforced by the venue of another musical event later that evening. The village’s James Fleming Memorial Hall played host to Charlie McKerron, who has won numerous awards for his both his solo fiddle-playing and work with Scottish trad supergroup Capercaillie.
Gaelic trad is much like our own, evidenced by McKerron’s references to The Chieftains, Donal Lunny, Gerry ‘Banjo’ O’Connor and Seamus Begley. The similarities between the two cultures strike you everywhere you go – the word ‘fáilte’ means the same in Gaelic as in Irish, we both say ‘sláinte’ for ‘cheers’, and while they spell céilí ‘céileadh’, the dancing is much the same, albeit a bit more frantic. I had a crash course in Gaelic dancing at one of the festival’s ceilidhs, held in the cooperage of GlenMoray distillery in Elgin. The cooperage was also the venue for the opening gala, at which I opted to wear a kilt, which quickly became a crash course in how to get out of a car whilst preserving your dignity.
Over the course of the festival there were many incredible meals, but the cask-strength dinner in Scotland’s oldest working distillery was one of the most special. Strathisla distillery in Keith is one of the world’s most beautiful distilleries, and was the venue for an evening of incredible food and drink. The menu was specially commissioned from Eric Obry, the chef and owner of the former Dufftown restaurant, La Faisanderie, and was inspired by the single malts from Chivas Brothers’ Speyside distilleries. One of our hosts for the evening was a man who is the personification of Scotch whisky; Charles MacLean; author, raconteur and Master Of The Quaich – a rare honour bestowed on those who celebrate Scotland’s national drink, which Maclean does with every fibre of his being.
Maclean has a soft, purring Scottish accents – he could read the phone book and you would consume each word. The Quaich of his honorary title is a shallow drinking bowl used ceremoniously by the Highland clans – it comes in all shapes and sizes, and the larger ones used in presentations looks like a slightly compressed Sam Maguire Cup. It’s pronounced like quake, with a slightly softer ch sound. Pronunciation can be tricky with Scottish words – a helpful Scot I met on the flight from Dublin to Inverness was quick to correct me on my attempt at Moray (it’s pronounced ‘murry’). However, I found the shoe was on the other foot when I visited Speyside Distillery. We met with the owner, John Harvey McDonough, who upon learning where I was from told me he was once in ‘Yockal” (Youghal) for the potato festival.
Called ‘the secret distillery’ due to it’s remote location, Speyside Distillery is possibly one of the best known distilleries due it being the location of the fictional Lagganmore Distillery from the long-running BBC series Monarch Of The Glen.
Harvey-McDonough spent 20 years in Taiwan, and the look and feel of Spey whisky reflects that, with a long elegant look more akin to a perfume bottle. And with both whisky and perfume, scent is everything – a lesson we learned in Gordon and MacPhail in Elgin. The outlet is the stuff of legend in whisky circles, with famed writer Michael Jackson (not the King Of Pop) saying that it is possible that there would be no such thing as single malts if Gordon and MacPhail had not kept buying and bottling malts as they have for the past 120 years. In an upstairs boardroom we were talked through the essential elements that you could encounter when nosing (a nice word for sniffing) whisky. We had to identify scent from little jars – honey, mint, heather, oats, aniseed – and once we had tuned in our olfactory organs, it was on to a blind tasting of five malts, which we were asked to try and categorise based on region of origin, strength, age, cask type and, if we were up to the challenge, which distillery the drams came from. I scored 7/25. Clearly I need to spend more time drinking whisky.
Gordon and MacPhail also own a distillery, and it happens to be one of the places that Maurice Walsh was stationed – Benromach. We took a walk through the distillery and saw how their particular style is made. In comparison to many, Benromach is tiny (it has a staff of three), but its independent spirit makes up for its size.
Also punching above its weight is the newly reopened Glen Keith distillery. Located a short stroll from its sister distillery Strathisla, Glen Keith has maximized modern production techniques to a point where it only needs one person on site to operate it. But tasting it, it is every bit as authentic as any boutique craft spirit. Another distillery with a deceptive appearance is Tamdhu, a post-war development that is stark in its functionality. In a land of chocolate box scenes of hand-built distilleries, it is curiously modern – but its product is fantastic, and testament to what the firm calls their ‘can-dhu spirit’. We had a tasting with recently appointed distillery manager, Sandy McIntyre and recently retired distillery manager, Sandy Coutts, sampling from their hand-picked single casks – a couple of fantastic whiskies that prove, in distilleries as in life, it really is what’s on the inside that counts.
A distillery that merges form and function with a keen eye on heritage, Ballindalloch is part of a 25,000-acre estate overseen by the aristocratic Macpherson-Grant family. Incredibly, Maurice Walsh had a connection to this clan too, having an aunt who married into the Macpherson Grant family.
In the distillery, a converted farm building redeveloped to an incredibly high spec, we met with the Laird, Oliver Russell, and his wife Clare, the Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire. They welcomed us with three drams of their private reserve of rare Cragganmore whiskies, and spoke about how the distillery was officially opened by Prince Charles and Camilla two weeks earlier. The family plans on issuing an eight-year-old as their first release, so the world will just have to wait for Scotland’s first single estate dram. As the Russells pointed out, their family has lived on those lands for 500 years, so they can wait another few years for their whisky to be just right. However, we did get to try some of their new-make spirit– it had a rich, banana milk feel to it, suggesting a bright future for Ballindalloch.
The estate is also close to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last family-owned firms, the rest having been snapped up by drinks giants like Pernod or Diageo. George Grant, the current head of the Glenfarclas clan, hosted a tasting event in the Mash Tun in Aberlour, a popular spot during the festival. One of the most striking things about the festival was how accessible all the distillery workers and owners are – be they operators, owners, Highland Lairds or whisky legends – they are not hidden away in dusty boardrooms, they are there in the pub pouring your drink, chatting about their plans, their hopes for the future. It was Alan Winchester, master distiller of the mighty Glenlivet, who told me about Maurice Walsh and his links to the area, and how Walsh’s grandson Dr Barry Walsh went on to become master blender with Irish Distillers, and is one of the men credited with laying the foundations for the current rebirth of Irish whiskey. Our respective distilling industries have been at loggerheads for more than a century, with the Scots lording it over us for much of that time – but this is changing. Irish whiskey is booming now, as Scotch is slowing. But a trip to Speyside is a reminder that our countries and their national drinks have far more similarities than differences, despite the odd skirmish. The Scots and the Irish have faced each other on the battlefield many times – Skerries in 1316, the Battle of Benburb in 1646, or even the massacre in Murrayfield in the last Six Nations – but the Speyside festival is a wonderful reminder of the unifying essences of our kindred Celtic spirits – good food, good company, and great whisky. And that’s something worth toasting; Sláinte!
Where to stay:
Our base for the festival was the Laichmoray Hotel in the ancient cathedral city of Elgin. The beautiful Victorian building is now a family run hotel that offers excellent food and a bar with more than 150 malts. Other venues include the recently renovated Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, or the Craigellachie hotel, which recently entertained guests like Noel Gallagher and Kate Moss.
One journalist I spoke to recommended flying into Edinburgh, ‘hiring a powerful car and driving up to Speyside via a disused military road in the Cairngorms National Park’. If you’d rather a more direct route, FlyBe goes from Dublin to Inverness daily, while you can also fly into Aberdeen, as the airports sit on either side of the region. Flight prices change depending on date of departure, but do remember to pay the extra for a bag, as you will most likely be bringing home several bottles!
While public transport in Scotland is excellent, a car is the best way to get about. You can, however, trek overland from venue to venue. At almost every event we attended there were large numbers of Dutch and German tourists in hiking gear. If you are driving with friends, most of the distilleries and events offer small sample bottles for the designated driver, so they can collect the whiskies and enjoy them later on.
The hidden gems:
Close to the confluence of the Fiddich and Spey rivers sits a little piece of history. The Fiddichside Inn is about as oldschool as it gets. Owner Joe Brandie is a former cooper who took over the running of the pub after his wife passed away some years ago. The pub itself has been there since 1840 and is a no-frills establishment – no carpet, no food, but a massive array of whiskies. Also well worth a visit is the whisky line, a vintage train that only travels during the festival. It goes from Keith to Dufftown along a disused track once used by the distilleries to transport goods, and is staffed entirely by volunteers who used to work it.
The huge variety of events means that ticket prices vary; many of the distillery tours and a lot of smaller events are free, while the tastings are often reasonably priced, ranging from stg£10 to stg£20. The more exclusive events such as the cask-strength dinner in Strathisla cost up to stg£90. For the non-whisky fan there are also many craft events such as tumbler carving, wood turning and glass blowing.
See spiritofspeyside.com for the full line-up for 2016 closer to the time.
Footnote that didn’t go into the paper: Much of the information about Walsh came from the book ‘Maurice Walsh: Storyteller’ by Steve Matheson. I think it is out of print, but your local library – which goes back considerably farther than the internet if you are doing research – has it in stock.
I actually contacted the chief archivist of Chivas Brothers to see if I could get a photo of the cupboard door in Glenburgie that has Walsh’s name carved on it, but it seems the door may have been lost to a series of renovations. Here are a few pages of the book, it is well worth a read if you like whiskey, and sher who doesn’t? They are out of synch, but so am I.
No Reproduction Fee Dave Quinn, Master of Whiskey Science, Jameson and Shane Long, Founder Franciscan Well Brewery, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Dave Quinn, Master of Whiskey Science, Jameson and Shane Long, Founder Franciscan Well Brewery, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Clare Sands, Blarney and Steve Guiney, Oliver Plunkett, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Hannah Davis and Sarah Hanley, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Emma Jane Hade and Jim Gallagher, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Darragh Browne and Des McCann, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Brian Brown, Irish Distillers, with Ciara Kissane, Leo Brennan and Sean Spillane, Molson Coors, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Dilar Herrero, Malaga Spain and Aojfe O’Donovan, Bishopstown, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Sean Crotty, Bishopstown and Niamh Lynch, Glanmire, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Niamh Lynch, Glanmire, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Edel Curtin, Joey Ryan and Kate O’Brien, Coughlans Bar, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Kate O’Brien, Coughlans Bar, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Michael Morris, Henry Donnelly and Joe Donnelly, Counihans Bar, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Jameson Cooper Ger Buckley pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale in the Oliver Plunkett, Cork, where he demonstrated how to build a whiskey cask. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Jameson Cooper Ger Buckley pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale in the Oliver Plunkett, Cork, Ger demonstrated how to build a whiskey cask, with the help of volunteer Fiona Creedon who gets her face blackened in a time old tradition. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Jameson Cooper Ger Buckley pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale in the Oliver Plunkett, Cork, Ger demonstrated how to build a whiskey cask, with the help of volunteer Fiona Creedon who gets her face blackened in a time old tradition. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Jameson Cooper Ger Buckley pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale in the Oliver Plunkett, Cork, where he demonstrated how to build a whiskey cask. Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee Barry Fitzpatrick, Fiona Creedon and Fiona Carroll, pictured at the launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale. Pic John Sheehan Photography
The launch of the Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale in the Oliver Plunkett late last year. And from today’s Irish Examiner:
The Franciscan Well Brewery, on the North Mall, won two golds, a silver and three bronze medals, adding to 23 previous major awards in the past two years.
The brewery won the double gold for its Franciscan Well Jameson Stout and its Summer Saison, while it won silver for Franciscan Well Jameson Pale Ale.
The Franciscan Well Jameson Stout had been borne out of a collaboration between Dave Quinn, master of whiskey science at Jameson, and Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well Brewery, in Cork.
Together, they explored the effect a Jameson whiskey cask would have on a Franciscan Well stout. Shane adheres to a strict, 100-day brewing process, to deliver the perfect balance of taste and aroma and a rich, smooth stout, fit for all occasions and with an ABV (alcohol-by-volume content) of 7.8%.
For the second consecutive year, Franciscan Well Jameson-aged Pale Ale claimed a silver in the flavoured beer section.
It is also a collaboration between the whiskey masters at Jameson and the brewing innovators of Franciscan Well, and was developed by Mr Long using Jameson Whiskey casks handpicked by Mr Quinn. This resulted in a smooth, rich and refreshing ale, with unique flavour properties.
Shout-out to Dave Quinn, who I met at The Academy Presents… here in the Irish Whiskey Academy recently, and shout-out also to Shane Long, who I met at The Housewarming here in Midleton Distillery, and one last shout-out to the girl I lost my virginity to, who used to work in the Franciscan Well about 20 years ago. Fond memories of sobbing over the bar after she dumped me for the assistant manager of the drive-thru McDonald’s in Douglas, who had a large (for the times) collection of CDs, all of which were soundtracks. Thankfully none of the beers from the Well are as bitter as me.