Everything is relative. When Jameson Black Barrel first launched as Jameson Select Reserve in the South African market, it featured the words ‘small batch’ on the label. Eyebrows shifted skyward amongst the whiskey commentariat, especially when they learned that it was grain spirit the term referred to, something Midleton produces oceans of. But relative to that exact scale, it was small batch. Their normal quantities are colossal, so anything other than a constant deluge of column spirit would technically be a small batch. We can argue semantics all day about what a consumer would perceive to be meant by the term, but that’s really not the fault of the Lemuel Gulliver of Irish whiskey production.
Just as small is a relative term, so too is rare. Curious to know exactly what it means in the context of Midleton Very Rare, I asked how much MVR was being released in this year’s batch. The figure you will find floating about the internet is that less than 2,500 nine-bottle cases of MVR are released each year – so a figure somewhere south of 22,500 bottles hits the market. You go back a few years (or even decades) and I would suggest that this really stretched the bounds of what anyone would classify as rare. Irish whiskey was still in a state of uneasy hibernation and while the MVR releases were always popular, seen as they were as the poshest and ergo – in the eyes of the perennially insecure Irish bourgeoisie – the best Irish whiskey, I doubt there was much of a dash to get them. Now, Irish whiskey is hot, and getting hotter. Collectors are collecting, flippers are flipping, and everyone wants to get their hands on MVR as soon as it appears. So how many bottles or cases are released? Here is your mercurial answer: Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard say that they ‘cannot share specific numbers’, but they told their PR person to let me know that ‘the volume available is in-keeping with previous releases’.
Now you can interpret that two ways – one, they don’t want to give an exact number because it might seem less than rare. Or, two, they don’t want to give a figure for the above reason, but also because it has been steadily climbing year on year and is now far higher than the alleged 2,500 nine-bottle cases. Think about it – if you had an annual release of 40%ABV NAS blended whiskey that had people falling over each other to get their hands on, of course you would like to shift as many units as possible (whilst still making sure not everyone got one – gotta keep the hunger out there).
That figure also seems low when you consider how wide this release is, covering as it does USA, Canada, Global Travel Retail, Europe, Australia, and Asia. I think they could rattle out five times that number worldwide and it still wouldn’t satisfy the ravenous demand for this iconic Irish whiskey. Although, this year’s makeover might have dampened some of that enthusiasm.
MVR is a collector’s whiskey. Released with the year proudly stamped on it, it was created with gifting and collecting in mind. So rebranding it – especially drastically – is something of a gamble. Yes it was overdue a refresh, given that since its launch in 1984 it had more or less looked the same, but the 2017 overhaul was less a refresh and more a complete redesign (or maybe those are the same thing). Irish whiskey was in its cups and maybe it was felt that the tired old MVR bottle and box needed something with a bit more pizazz. If I was a collector, I would have been less than amused – my 30+ bottles of MVR on the shelf would look completely different from their 2017 sibling. And now, six years later, the iconic wooden box that MVR came in since 1990 has been dumped in favour of something a little more in-keeping with the mood of the times. Per the press release: While honouring the traditions of the past, Midleton Very Rare 2023 also pays homage to the future as the brand prioritises sustainability and a commitment to the land from which it is created. For the first time, the new vintage will be presented in luxury recyclable secondary packaging*, replacing the wooden cabinet used since 1990.
Here is the new box:
Why yes, it does look like the 1950s wardrobe your mum brought back from the charity shop as she wanted to upcycle it so she covered it in flock wallpaper and now it looks really shoddy and nobody wants in their bedroom so it’s out in the shed and your dad keeps the paint tins in it.
Maybe the hardcore collectors will embrace it:
I’ve spoken to one or two other collectors who felt the same – that this new, greener packaging just isn’t as nice as the wood. But it’s not about nice, it’s about saving the planet, or at least trying to. In a lengthy piece on IrishWhiskeyMagazine.com Midleton master distiller Kevin O’Gorman explains the reasoning: “GPA Global who have produced this box have done a lifecycle analysis and a comparison between this and the old box. There has been a 50% reduction in weight which drives a lot of the other savings in fossil fuels, carbon and greenhouse gases emissions, and also water reductions.”
You’d also have to wonder if there was a reduction in cost as well, because if there was, it wasn’t reflected in the RRP (€210) this year.
The dilemma here is in what is expected of a super premium brand. Does anyone buying a premium whiskey actually care all that much about the planet? Something so decadent makes an uneasy bedfellow with any kind of ethical push. Wealth, opulence, luxury are all, by their very definitions, wasteful. Premium whiskey, like high fashion, private jets and mansions, isn’t about servicing needs but about wants, or to use a more lux term, desires. If I was paying €200+ for a whiskey then I would expect premium packaging and I wouldn’t care a whole lot about the planet, and the more premium the whiskey, the less of a hoot I would give. Frankly the relatively small numbers of premium whiskeys sold in comparison to blends means there are bigger fish to fry – so it should be noted that there has been a massive drive in whiskey generally, and Midleton in particular, to reduce and eliminate any waste from the production process across all brands.
But the greenification of packaging will have to continue and I wonder how many more vintages of MVR it will take before they get rid of the glass bottle and sell it to us in tetrapak or recyclable pouches. By then we may all have come to the conclusion that if we all truly cared about the health of this planet, or even our own personal health, we would probably stop drinking altogether.