The Pleasures and Sorrows Of Capitalism

When I tell people how much I spend on whiskey, they are horrified. You mean you can spend upwards of sixty euro on a bottle? they gasp. It usually leads to more questions – what is the most you would spend on a bottle, how much do you earn, what makes it so expensive? All great questions that I’m happy to answer – the most I would spend is about 120 euro; I earn somewhere around the 50k mark each year, and as for what makes good whiskey expensive, that is a heady brew of real-world elements – age, rarity, source – and more ephemeral ones – legacy, branding, prestige – all of which combine to create that most elusive of things; aura. 

Super-premium is not a mode of production. It is a price category, and perhaps more importantly, it is a demographic, one which Irish whiskey has only just started to explore. Midleton Pearl was an early foray into the field in 2014, with a six grand price tag – a figure that seems modest when you consider what was coming next. 

Louise McGuane wrote a great blog post about the gap in the super-premium sector within Irish whiskey, drawing on her decades of experience in the luxury goods sector. She then went on to release The Chosen – a super-luxe spirit which may or may not be a 27 year old peated Bushmills.

This has been eclipsed by Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Chapter One, which smashed into the sector this week with a price tag affonting heaven – 35,000 euro. 

The launch in London was a VIP affair and the press release and accompanying visuals were typically slick (and typically po-faced, given the brief), all striving to create the required aura. 

A price tag like this may seem offensive to us mere mortals, but if you earn half a million a year and want to invest, or if you earn millions and want a treat, the price tag is not that outlandish. Yes, it’s obscene, but that’s capitalism, baby – my purchase of a Redbreast 21 for 180 would be seen by many as completely over the top, so it’s all a question of perspective. 

As for the 35k tag, it doesn’t even come close to what the exclusive releases from the Macallan command; nor does it even qualify for this list of the top ten most expensive whiskies. The Scots have been doing super-premium for years, and doing it well – so why not us? And if Midleton are doing it, why not Bushmills?

And so to the liquid itself; John Wilson of the Irish Times has a review of it. It’s a nice bottle, a nice box, and I’ve no doubt it is a nice liquid. Not that this matters, because all anyone needs to know about this is the price. That is the defining factor.

The series opens with a peated single malt from old Midleton. It is worth remembering that there are other bottles of old Midleton out there which you can grab at auction for less than a grand, albeit none of it malt and none of it peated. In fact, this is the first official single malt from old or new Midleton (the Method & Madness one is distilled at Bushmills), and a peated one at that. So it is something of a unicorn. I have no doubt it will sell, because, as McGuane pointed out, we need this offering.

But back to MVRSDCO, and the salient points: 

  • Six releases. The first is a 45-year-old Irish single malt. There will be one release annually until the year 2025, ranging in age from 45 to 50 years old, all from Old Midleton Distillery (1825-1975). 
  • The last release will coincide with Old Midleton Distillery’s 200th birthday, while Chapter One will be the first official release from Old Midleton in 16 years.
  • Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Collection Chapter One is the only release in this collection that is a peated single malt – it has been in a third-fill sherry cask cask for 45 years.
  • RRP: €35,000 £32,000 $40,000; ABV 51.2%; 48 750ml bottles in Ireland, UK, France and US; two bottles will be sold via ballot system on The 1825 Room, the Midleton Very Rare online members’ programme. Whiskey lovers can register their interest to be entered into a lottery to purchase a bottle from 9pm on 18th February for one week. 

You can say that the price is obscene. Many would say the money we, as whiskey lovers, regularly spend on a bottle is obscene. There are people out there who are immensely wealthy, and they want a drink that reflects their status. Super-premium has little to do with how it is made and much to do with how it is sold, and who it is sold to – and in this case, it’s not you, not me, and most likely not anyone we know. 

So, in summary – capitalism is bad, whiskey is good, and time is the only commodity of any value.

Alternative Ulster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arise

The Giant’s Grave near Clonmult. 

In the hills outside of Midleton lies the village of Clonmult. It is one of those blink-and-you-miss it places that is hard to find when you look for it, and passes by almost unnoticed when you drive through it. There isn’t a huge amount of things to see up there – the site of one of the worst massacres of the War Of Independence, the three spindly streams that unite to form the Roxboro (better known as the Dungourney river), the holy wells of Knockaneo and Garrylaurence, the parental purgatory of Leahy’s Open Farm, and, if you know where to look, a megalithic tomb known as the Giant’s Grave.

It’s not an especially well-flagged place; of the few scraps of information about it online, there is this, which gives a sense of the wreckage – the tomb and its surrounds look like it has been looted. But if you were planning on looting a site buried deep in the woods of Dungourney and Clonmult, a half mile from the Giant’s Grave lies a bone fide golden hoard, albeit a liquid one.

The Giant’s Grave on top right, and Irish Distillers Limited’s massive Dungourney warehouse complex on bottom right.

irish-distillers-dungourney The Dungourney maturation site, which is to be expanded.  

Irish Distillers have a sizeable warehouse complex embedded in the woods, and are going to be building more over the coming years, because, in case you hadn’t heard, Irish whiskey is booming. Specifically, Irish Distillers Ltd whiskey is booming, a point made clear in this piece. Jameson is the re-animator of the entire category, but as that article asks, what happens now – how do you take Jameson’s success and expand it across the entire sector?

My take on the boom is the same as when I wrote this – let Jameson lay down the heavy artillery as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-chaser go-to whiskey of average josephine sixpack. Then you push through with the ground troops, winning hearts and minds using our single malts, single pot stills and the premium whiskeys of Ireland. This is happening already – as noted in the Irish Times, sales of premium whiskey brands like MVR and Redbreast jumped 40% last year. But this isn’t all about the US – sales of Irish whiskey are also rising in the domestic market, outpacing scotch, something that could be seen as a sign of a growing consumer awareness of the category.

The boom, as they say, is getting boomier, which might explain why Irish Distillers Limited are planning another distillery – or are they? The Indo said they were, citing Youghal as a possible site. Then IDL CEO Conor McQuaid went on radio the next morning to discuss their booming profits and when asked about the Indo piece, poured cold water on the notion that they were going to build another distillery. Then an updated press release came out that afternoon which basically confirmed that they were looking at exactly that, stating: At Irish Distillers, our objective is to drive the growth of our portfolio of premium Irish whiskey brands supported by the strength of the Pernod Ricard global distribution network. We take a long term view and naturally, as we grow, there are implications for our business. We are currently examining all options to increase our production capacity to meet projected demand and building a new distillery is one of them. These are exciting times for Irish whiskey and we are proud to be leading the way.

Midleton is not at capacity – yet. Give it five to ten years, however, and that will change. IDL, like any distiller big or small, need to plan decades ahead. If sales keep rocketing, they need to be able to guarantee supply. Supply is the same reason they bought 8 Degrees craft brewery, to ensure casks for the runaway success that is Caskmates.

What this planned distillery could signal is the start of a Chivas Brothers-style model for Irish Distillers Limited – distilleries operating across multiple sites creating key elements for blends like Powers, Jameson, and Sazerac’s Paddy. For any firm the size of IDL, you simply cannot put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s also worth noting that any distillery of decent size is about more than just stills, grain silos and warehousing, so the space they appear to have in Midleton may be needed for something other than the front end of production; have a gander at this device, which closed the main street of Midleton when it was being delivered:

It is an evaporator, which takes liquid waste such as pot ale and turns it into dark grains (animal feed) – because a beast like Midleton Distillery needs to manage waste as well as crafting wonderful booze. So it’s not all hewn stone and copper pots.

IDL have acres of storage space in Dungourney, but they will need more liquid. Midleton has the Barry Crockett Stillhouse, the Garden Stillhouse with its six stills, the micro-distillery and the biggest, baddest column still you are every likely to see, but with sales going the way they are, this new distillery, expected to be up and running by 2025, will be vital. Where it will be built is the next piece of the puzzle.

Two years ago IDL bought a farm next door which is part zoned for industrial, but I would imagine that after the floods in Midleton three years ago, and summer 2018 which saw almost no rainfall, they are thinking about how our climate is changing. In the decades to come, IDL will need a reliable, sizeable water source – one that doesn’t either flood the site or run dry. Little wonder that Youghal became part of the speculation, with excellent roads, oodles of space, a region that is crying out for a investment, and the monster that is the Blackwater. While it may flood lowland towns upriver, if that river ever runs dry, we will all be dead too long to give a shit about it.

In the meantime, Irish whiskey is becoming more diverse – Slane started production, Teelings auctioned their first in-house three-year-old pot still whiskey for more ten grand, and the tide is rising and lifting all boats. The challenge for many brands-turned-distillers will be moving from sourced stock to their own, and this is particularly true for the Jameson-in-waiting, Tullamore DEW. They are second biggest in the market, and will have to nail the transition. Consider that they currently have three disparate elements in their ubiquitous blend – malt (presumably Bushmills), grain (presumably Midleton) and pot still whiskey (obviously Midleton). So they need to replicate those three liquids perfectly in their new 35 million distillery in Tullamore, along with making standalone expressions.

I’m no scientist, but I would suggest that if the chaps at Wm Grant & Sons wanted to perfectly replicate Bushmills malt and Midleton pot whiskey, they could do it with relative ease. Science means that a modern master distiller or blender may talk about the romance and poetry of whiskey, but behind closed doors they are brilliant chemists who can perfectly recreate a whiskey if they need to.

TDEW-Distillery-0113 Date Captured: 03/07/2014 Pictured here is the newly installed Tullamore Distillery Spirit Safe. Also in the background are two of Tullamore Distillery’s copper stills.

So I’m going to assume that Wm Grant & Sons have a healthy supply contract with Midleton and Bushmills, but if sales keep going at the rate they are, everyone is going to be watching those corners – whiskey is not going to be something you will want to share. Their own plans for Tullamore were thus:

Located on a 58-acre site in Clonminch on the outskirts of the Co Offaly town, the distillery draws on spring water from the nearby Slieve Bloom mountains, and will be capable of producing the equivalent of 1.5 million cases of Tullamore Dew annually, when fully operational.

The move brings whiskey production back to Tullamore for the first time since the original distillery closed in 1954.

The new plant contains four hand-crafted copper stills, designed to resemble the original stills from the old Tullamore distillery, six brew house fermenters each with a 34,000 litre capacity and warehouse storage for 100,000 casks.

So Tullamore is back on the distilling map, but their own stocks are only just hitting maturity so I would imagine that like Walsh Distillery et al, the supply contract will keep going for another few years.

On that note, here comes this 18 year old single malt, which is triple distilled. In the olden times I used to believe double-distilled meant Cooley, triple meant Bushmills. Then I read this post by Whiskey Nut in which former Bushmills master distiller Darryl McNally reveals that Bushmills did, in fact, double distil, and that this double distilled stock was offloaded and makes up the bulk of what the Teeling boys are selling. This is part of the Bushmills conundrum; why was this excellent stock sold in the first place? Bushmills is obviously the source of massive amounts of sourced whiskey, but it seems odd that one of Ireland’s great distilleries has become our MGP, rather than our Macallan.

This 18 year old Bushmills single malt is triple distilled and finished for ten months in a quartet of casks – bourbon, sherry, madeira and port. Bottled at 41.3%ABV, this is limited to 2,500 bottles, and is a reasonable 80 euro on the Whisky Exchange. I’m growing used to seeing Irish whiskeys over 15 year being around the 100 mark, so this makes a pleasant change. That said, I paid fuck all for it, as it was a gift from John Quinn, Tully ambassador extraordinaire, whose signature the bottle bears. To the tasting notes:

The colour is that amazing rose gold you get from port finishes – like bloody brass. On the nose there is rich cherry, vanilla butterscotch, while there are also fresher elements, pine needles, lime, and, oddly enough, a mouthwatering scent of meaty jus. On the palate – that extra percent in the strength is felt, then there are dried apricots and goji berries, a little cola bottle fizzle. Butterscotch nose makes way for fudge, tiramisu, and a gentle peppery finish. I like this – it’s a reasonably priced, interesting whiskey, and one that is finite. Cask finishes are too often seen as a variation on the expression that ‘you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter’, but this is a decent single malt with a stylish little kick, not an upcycled hot mess.

Now, take my hand and let us travel back in time to 2005:

Pernod Ricard took many people by surprise when it announced on Monday that it had agreed to sell its Bushmills Irish whiskey brand to arch rival Diageo.

The French group’s decision to sell its Number Two Irish whiskey to a company with the marketing might to make Bushmills a serious challenger to Pernod’s top brand, Jameson, might seem at first sight a strange one.

But viewed as part of a wider picture, it makes more sense.

The prize for Pernod was to take Diageo out of the running in the race for control of Allied Domecq. The price to be paid was Bushmills, which has long played second fiddle in the Pernod portfolio to Jameson.

The €295 million (£200 million) price tag attaching to the Co Antrim-based distillery confirmed for some that there were other factors at play in this deal, which is conditional upon Pernod securing control of Allied Domecq.

While the price represents 14 times Bushmills’ €21 million contribution to Pernod’s coffers last year, one industry source noted that LVMH paid a broadly similar multiple for Glenmorangie, a less prestigious brand, last autumn.

That is just a sample, but that article is worth a read in its entirety to get a sense of just how far we have come in 13 years – a period of time which, in whiskey terms, is not all that long.

The initial reason for the sale of Bushmills was to break IDL’s monopoly on the market – something that we have no fear of now, with distilleries of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere. So here’s my pitch – instead of building another distillery, why don’t IDL buy back Bushmills? Granted, a new distillery would only cost a few million, and Bushmills could be 400m plus, but it’s clear already that the new owners are struggling to figure out what makes the place tick. Those massive warehouses in Antrim are absolutely packed with stellar single malts – something the IDL portfolio is sadly lacking. Now is the time for an operator with deep understanding of how to run a distillery, and a passion for Irish whiskey, to take the reins and make Bushmills great again. It is long-past time for the giant of Antrim to rise and make the ground shake.

Red dawn

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I’ve long been a fan of Writers Tears – even on a purely aesthetic level, I would sing its praises. Fortunate then that, beneath the surface, it is also a cracking whiskey. Walsh have recently released another expression in the family, and because every Irish family has at least one ginge in it, this one is titled Red Head.

This is billed as ‘a triple distilled single malt’ – so this is the point where I tap my nose, wink at you and mouth the word ‘Bushmills’. You furrow your brow, mis-lipread and think I mouthed ‘punch me’ and we end up in a tremendous donnybrook that makes the Táin Bó Cúailnge look like an especially weak episode of WWE Raw.

The official line is thus:

This exquisite, triple-distilled single malt is matured only in select handpicked Spanish sherry butts which have previously been seasoned with the finest Oloroso sherry. It is the influence of these scarce butts that give this expression of Writers Tears its signature rich, ruby hue and hence the moniker – ‘Red Head’. The expression is distilled without chill filtering as nature intended and at a distinctive 46% ABV.

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So what of my slightly-pissed tasting notes:

A real sweetness on the nose, lots of rich caramel (the foodstuff, not the colouring) in there, a little bit of clove and cinnamon. Palate-wise – more spices than I expected, a lot of really nice heat from that extra bit of ABV, definitely feeling that orange peel note touted in the official tasting notes. The finish is not the 2001: A Space Odyssey-style epic the notes suggest, but it has more of the spice and less of the sweetness from the nose. For less than €50, and a NAS to boot, you cannot expect some multi-layered labyrinth of flavour. I prefer the standard Copper Pot expression, and would still recommend it over this, but this Red Head still has more soul than your average ginger

Iver regret

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We did a photo shoot for Bushmills. To be clear: They gave us a bunch of money and we were able to finish [my recording studio] without borrowing. It was great for us, and everybody that worked at the company was great, and I love Bushmills and wanted to do the deal because my dad loved Bushmills — we bond over Irish whiskey. But the problem is that it isn’t just Bushmills. It’s run by a corporation, and you kind of forget that they’re not interested in you or really what you’re doing. They’re interested in your popularity and your reach, and it felt really sickening after a while. Not badmouthing Bushmills the company, but I regret it.

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, discussing his new album, Diageo Can Suck A Dick.

*Working title. Possibly.