Forty shades of delicious

I wrote a couple of pieces for the Irish Examiner Food & Drink supplement; one about innovation in food and drink, and one on (of all things) whiskey.

And would you believe I didn’t get any free booze for doing this? Shocking. WTF is journalism coming to? Anyway, here you go:


Brewing up a storm

Our forty shades of green are more than just a tourism slogan – they are also a sign of just how strong agriculture is in this country. Whiskey sales may be rocketing, but our craft beer scene is also getting stronger, with a plethora of new brands coming on stream every month – to the point that many of the brewing giants are trying to cash in and creating ‘craft’ styled brands. When the titans of industry are getting rattled, you know a revolution is taking place.

It has been 21 years since the late Oliver Hughes and his cousin Liam LaHart opened the Porterhouse in Temple Bar, and while the concept seemed alien at the time in a country where you drank one of three lagers or one of three stouts, the modern boom shows just what a thirst there was for change. A Bord Bia report released last year highlighted this, pointing out that there is an estimated 90 microbreweries operating in the Republic of Ireland, of which 62 are production microbreweries and at least 28 are contracting companies. There was a 29% increase in the number of production microbreweries from 48 in 2015 to 62 in 2016. The number of microbreweries has more than quadrupled since 2012.

As the scene grows, so does innovation in the category. Munster Brewery in Youghal is one example. Last year the brewers, twins Padraig and Adrian Hyde, released 12 Towers,  Ireland’s first certified organic beer. They also signed up to a green earth initiative: “We’ve delighted to say we’ve just signed up to the Climate Neutral Now programme, where we promise to reduce emissions and offset any unavoidable ones by buying carbon credits. It’s an extra expense we don’t really need but one we’re happy to pay. We’ve gone and committed the entire brewery to the Climate Neutral Now programme so we’re busy as bees monitoring energy usage and fuel.”

Apart from making their beers more earth and body friendly, they also make the ancient health drink kombucha under their HOLO (holistic and organic) brand. While they also offer tours, they are frustrated by the licensing laws, which prohibit small brewers and distillers from selling direct to customers. They can sell huge amount wholesale, but not a few bottles to a tourist – an issue for any potential drinks tourism.

Innovation is integral to the drinks category – and with the explosion in craft breweries and distilleries comes new ideas. Perhaps one of the biggest success stories in drinks innovation here is Baileys, the first of the now ubiquitous Irish creams. A collision of two forms of famring – tillage (barley for whiskey) and dairy (the cream), it was dreamed up by David Dand in Dublin in 1974. Legend has it that it was first created using a simple mixer (blending cream and whiskey takes a bit more science than that),  it now sells 6.4m cases year, or 80m bottles – more than the entire Irish whiskey industry combined. Every three secs someone, somewhere in the world is having a Baileys. The brand has also expanded to include Baileys Gold, Baileys Chocolat Luxe, and flavours Biscotti, Vanilla-Cinnamon, Pumpkin Spice, Espresso and Salted Caramel. Each year, 38,000 Irish dairy cows produce more than 220 million litres of fresh cream specifically for the creation of Baileys.

The success has prompted other entrants to the category, with Cremór, Kerrygold, Carolans, Molly’s, Brogans, Saint Brendan’s and Coole Swan all doing a booming trade.

Kerrygold Irish cream is produced by the Ornua group, which recently released booming stats. As Ireland’s largest exporter of primary Irish dairy products, they delivered a strong trading performance in 2016, with turnover up by 9% to €1.75 billion – a figure all the more remarkable when you consider that this performance was achieved in a year of volatile milk prices and political uncertainty in some of their key markets.  The global giant’s ambition is to move Kerrygold from being a world-class butter brand to an instantly recognisable €1 billion global dairy brand in the coming years. 2016 saw the successful launch of Kerrygold Yogurts in Germany, Kerrygold Spreadable in the UK and the continued roll-out of Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur across Europe and the US.

Ireland’s strength in the export of food and drink products is also reflected in the success of the Carbery Group, a global leader in food ingredients, flavours and cheese, headquartered in Ballineen, Cork. Founded in 1965 as a joint venture between four creameries and Express Dairies, UK, Carbery Group is owned by four Irish dairy co-operatives, employ more than 600 people, and manufacture from eight facilities worldwide, including Ireland, UK, USA, Brazil and Thailand. The group has moved far beyond the traditional bedrock of cheese to health and nutritional supplements and flavour creation.

One knock-on from the distilling is the boom in gins, used as a revenue generator by distilleries as their whiskey stocks mature, while the use of local botanical infusions in the gins give them a regional flavour that sets each apart. One of Carbery Group’s success stories in drinks innovation blends the normally disparate worlds of dairy farming and distilling. Originating from Ballyvolane House in Cork, Bertha’s Revenge gin is named after a cow, a tribute befitting an alcoholic beverage distilled from sweet whey, the liquid produced during cheese making. Bertha’s Revenge is distilled with whey alcohol sourced from Carbery and derived from cow’s milk produced by Cork dairy farmers.

Using specially developed yeasts to ferment the milk sugars in the whey, Carbery brew and then double distill the whey in large column stills. Justin Green of Ballyvolane House and his business partner Antony Jackson then distill the 96% proof whey alcohol a third time in their custom-made 125 litre copper stills along with botanicals such as coriander, bitter orange, cardamom, cumin and clove as well as foraged local botanicals such as elderflower and sweet woodruff. The resulting gin has won local and international acclaim since its launch in 2015, and Bertha’s Revenge is now exported to the UK, mainland Europe and even South Korea – and, later this year, to the US, where it just won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2017.

Bertha’s Gin has shown that innovation, experimentation and even the occasional odd idea can get the best out of Ireland’s tradition of agricultural excellence – and proof that those forty shades of green can always keep us in the black.

Distillers of future past

The old adage of ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ may not be true in all fields, but in whiskey it might just be. With a history of distilling dating back to its first mention in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 (the Scots’ earliest mention is 1494), we were the world’s greatest whiskey makers by the late 1800s, with distilleries dotted all over the country. But that changed – a combination of war, pestilence, famine and a simple changing of tastes saw us go into a period of decline that hit a low point in the Seventies and Eighties, with only two distilleries left on the island of Ireland – Bushmills and Midleton. We were an also ran in the world whiskey scene, with our neighbours the Scots having left us for dust.

Fast forward to the last six years: Through careful marketing – and our old friend ‘changing tastes’ – Jameson has rocketed to the fasted growing spirit brand in the world, and that rising tide of smooth irish liquor has lifted a number of boats, with distilleries popping up all over the country. This is great news for the whiskey fan, but the wider effects will be felt in agriculture and tourism. In the short term, more distilleries means a need for more barley, more maltsters, and thus more employment. In the longer term, it will mean more tourists.

Whisky tourism is worth tens of millions to the Scottish economy – travel across a region like Speyside, where there are 50+ distilleries, and you can see how a coherent strategy has been built around whisky – there is even a walking trail you can take, bringing you through the hills from distillery to distillery. But they have had decades to draw a roadmap for tourism, while here our industry is still in its infancy, with a number of distilleries in operation, in the process of being built, at the planning stage, and some that are still trying to get beyond being a pipe dream.

Dublin has a number of distilleries at various stages – the merchant princes of Irish whiskey, Jack and Stephen Teeling, sons of the legendary John Teeling, who opened Cooley distillery and democratised whiskey by selling it direct to bottlers, have an incredibly slick operation in Newmarket Square. Alltech agrifoods billionaire Pearse Lyons has his eponymous distillery housed inside an old church in the Liberties, while a couple of hundred years down the road the former owners of Bushmills, Diageo are building a distillery within one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland – the Guinness site at St James’s Gate. Also nearby is the Dublin Liberties Distillery, which has recently commenced construction. Meanwhile, the longest serving whiskey tourism hub in Dublin, the Bow Street Jameson Heritage Centre, recently re-opened after a massive €11m overhaul.

But Dublin doesn’t need a selection of distilleries to attract tourists – it is simply another string to the city’s bow. It is the distilleries spread across the country that need to be brought together under one tourism vision.

Outside the Pale, the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton is the biggest whiskey tourism draw that Ireland has right now, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. But what gives Midleton the edge over their Dublin wing is that they have the heritage, the history, and – tucked away behind it all – one of the most modern, efficient distilleries in the world. In recent years Midleton added another attraction – an experimental micro-distillery.

Ignacio Peregrina, General Manager at The Jameson Experience Midleton: “Since we opened in 1992 we have been delighted to welcome over 2.3 million visitors to Midleton. We’re always delighted to bring our heritage to life for new audiences and send people home as strong ambassadors for Irish whiskey. In the last 25 years, we’ve welcomed people from all over the world from Hollywood royalty, Kevin Spacey to Cork royalty, Roy Keane!”

Since opening in 1992 the Midleton centre has welcomed 2.3 million visitors, while last year it hosted 125000. Of the top four countries of origin for visitors, USA made up 25%; Germany 12%; Britain 11% and France 10%.

To the east of Midleton, along the Ancient East, lies Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and home to Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, one of the most impressive operations to set up here in the last five years. With his background (he resurrected Bruichladdich distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, before selling it to Remy Cointreau) he was able to buy an old Guinness brewery, and transform it into a state of the art distillery.

Reynier’s project differs from many others in its dedication to barley – he has been using barley from individual farms to distill individual batches of spirit, meaning you will be able to taste the difference from soil type to soil type, thus proving the concept of terroir. His project is one to watch – and having just secured another 20 million boost from investors, it has no signs of slowing down.

Not far away in the sleepy village of Cappoquin, Peter Mulryan has been creating award winning spirits under his Blackwater Distillery brands. A journalist, author, and whiskey expert, Mulryan is getting ready to move his operation to a larger premises in the nearby village of Ballyduff and, with that, to move to the next stage of his business plan – whiskey tourism.

To the west of Midleton is West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen, and beyond that, Dingle Distillery. Dingle was the vision of the late Oliver Hughes, credited as being the father of craft beer in Ireland after he set up the highly successful Porterhouse chain. Hughes saw opportunity in whiskey too, setting up Dingle before the current boom properly took off. As a result of his foresight, Dingle Distillery single malt is hitting the market at a time when all other whiskeys come from one of the other big three – Midleton, Cooley or Bushmills. Dingle whiskey, much like the town itself, is in a league of its own.

The process of creating whiskey is one of the complications to building an immediate tourism industry around it. First you need to build the distillery, distill your grain, and cask your spirit. Then you wait – while three years is the legal minimum requirement, anything between five and ten years is the accepted minimum for the serious whiskey drinker – and thus, the serious whiskey tourist.

In order to draw tourists here in the same way Scotland draws thousands from across Europe, Ireland will need well-established and well-respected distilleries with quality output. The casual tourist will be happy to visit one distillery on a trip to Ireland, the whiskey tourist will want more than that – they will want distillery exclusives – whereby the distillery sells a particular brand on its own premises and nowhere else – and to be able to visit a number of distilleries in one trip. The Irish Whiskey Association has launched a document laying out its vision for whiskey tourism here, creating a whiskey trail from distillery to distillery so that when the plan comes of age in 2025, there is an accepted route for the discerning whiskey fan.

One thing is for certain – after decades of struggle, Irish whiskey is back with a bang.

Under the #influence

Despite being a terrible writer and Ireland’s worst blogger, I recently managed to get invited to a couple of events. This means I now belong to that vanguard of heroes, The #Influencers. These digital Veruca Salts have redefined what it means to be a spoiled nobody, and I am delighted to finally be able to take my place among them with my paid-for Twitter followers, click-heavy, zero-engagement blog and ego the size of one of Saturn’s more portly moons. So come with me now as I take you on a guided tour of my fabulous fucking social life via the serpentine route of #coverage.

Is there any Irish person who doesn’t love cans? There is virtually nothing in this life that a big bag of cans cannot fix, with the exception of cirrhosis of the liver. I hadn’t been to the Franciscan Well in years, the last time being when an ex-girlfriend worked there and I used to go and mope at the bar and recite Smiths lyrics at her, whilst trying to give myself cirrhosis of the liver. Since then it became one of the first brew pubs in Ireland, before ultimately fulfilling the dream of all craft brewers by selling out to a massive multinational, in this case Molson Coors.

The Well is located a stone’s throw from the gates of the old IDL site on the North Mall (and across the river from the home of George Boole, father of GamerGate). The IDL site was once home to the Wyse family distillery, and the area to the back of it is still known as Distillery Field. If you go in and walk around you can see traces of its distilling past all round you. Fitting then that one of the biggest success stories for the Well has been their alignment with IDL to create both their whiskey-barrel aged stout and the runaway success that is Caskmates, a whiskey finished in stout barrels – although one wag once suggested to me that not even stout is improved by ageing in stout barrels, not to mind whiskey.  

And so it was that I found myself at the launch of the Well’s latest experiment in liquid containment – cans. Specifically 330ml cans, the classy ones. The Well still brews some beers on-site, but the bulk of the work goes on down the docks, not far from the iconic dockers pub The Idle Hour. Cork trivia alert: The hot mess that is the nearby Elysian high-rise apartment block is known locally as The Idle Tower because of its sparse occupancy.

I will freely admit that I know even less about craft beer than I do about whiskey, which places me at a solid knowledge level of zero, alongside much of the rest of society. But it’s a movement I can get behind – small firms producing a local drink that eases your emotional pain whilst also tasting nice. The sheer proliferation of craft brewers here has given us a huge variety, so much so that for a novice like me, it’s hard to know where to begin. So I will begin my voyage into craft beer as I begin every journey; with three cans of beer, graciously provided by the good people at the Fran Well and Notorious PSG.

The Well is a great pub with some great products, and is well worth a visit – especially for their Easter beer fest and legendary Oktoberfest – but also to try their Shandon Stout, which , ironically, is not available in cans.

Across the city from the Well, on the south channel of the Lee,  sits The River Lee Hotel. Formerly Jury’s – where Jacko stayed, as every Cork person will tell you….repeatedly – the old low-rise hotel was levelled some years ago to make way for this gleaming cube. The Lee is a beautiful hotel, a five-minute walk from the city centre, Fitzgerald Park, UCC and St Finn Barre’s Cathedral.

Here I was treated to an event to celebrate their winter dining experience, with a focus on their bar menu and seasonal treats. We were introduced to the evening by Pierce Lowney, Bar Manager at The River Lee. He has worked with the hotel’s owners, the Doyle Collection, for over six years, travelling the world through his work, but is originally Allihies in west Cork, a place as beautiful and remote as one of Saturn’s more inaccessible moons. Not too far away is the waterfall known as the Mare’s Tail, where Gemma ‘Artery’ Arterton took a blood shower in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.

Beautiful west Cork there, at its seasonal best.

As we nibbled (or, in my case, inhaled) canapés, we were introduced to Longueville Cider by Rubert Atkinson. Rubert and I went to the same school, and my best memory is of him catching every single throw in Munster Senior Cup lineouts as he was about 6’ 5” – and has possibly even grown a bit more. Longueville House has a great story and their cider and apple brandy are both fantastic winter warmers.

Next up was Ciaran from West Cork Distillers. WCD have been in operation since 2008 and have recently expanded with the purchase of the old fish processing plant in Skibbereen – a fitting move as the firm was started by two former fishermen (and a food scientist). WCD have their own stock maturing which will be ready for market next year, but in the meantime they have sourced stock from Cooley. You can read more about their own output on the Irish Whiskey Society’s discussion board, suffice to say that WCD’s earlier experiments in ‘infusions’ didn’t go over well.

Ciaran was quick to point out that their early output was a revenue generator and simply acted to keep the business alive. In a crowded market, they saw an opening for a lower ABV brown spirit, so they improvised. I would imagine that now their own proper whiskey stock is nearing maturity they are releasing some Cooley to try and establish the brand as one for serious whiskey drinkers. Time will tell. I had the Black Barrel and really liked it.

As we moved from the mezz down to the heated outdoor seating on de banks of de Lee, we were treated to even more treats. At this stage I was starting to feel like Hedonism Bot, adrift in a fog of decadent epicurean delights. In reality, I was a guy with mustard on his tie losing consciousness in a wicker chair. So with a heavy heart (it is clogged with cholesterol) I drifted home, head full of potential ways I could leverage my brand into being more #influency so I could get more and more free stuff that I don’t deserve. I’m sure some quality #content might help, so here are a billion photos from the night taken by an actual photographer, as opposed to the Etch-A-Sketch ones above by moi: 

My thanks to Donna from Edelman and Orna from Notorious PSG for allowing me to crash their respective PR parties, and also for helping me to #pivot my #brand from lowly HSE worker to Large Media Presence. Here’s to #influence.