A Highland rhythm

Think of Scotch whisky as music, and the regions are genres – Speyside is pop, Islay is heavy metal, Islands are Soundcloud rap, Campbelltown is folk, Lowlands are classical. What then of the Highlands? Their particular ouvre lies somewhere between Wagner and polka – lots of deep bass, robust melodies – this is a region that marches to the beat of an ancient drum. But of course, this is seeing the area as a group, rather than as individuals within a genre. And what if one of those individuals suddenly started making a solo album – one with steel drums and island rhythms? Now imagine one of them was Einsturzende Neubauten crossed with Jackie Mittooo – strange instruments and tropical notes. 

It has taken Fettercairn quite some time to get its moment in the spotlight – 195 years to be precise. Its founder, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was one of the first Scottish landowners to campaign for the making of whisky to be licensed, and in 1824 was one of the first to be granted permission to make whisky. Obviously, distilling had been taking place across the highlands for some time – all around the flat farmlands of the Mearns, upon which Fettercairn Distillery sits,  there are valleys and nooks ideal for setting up an illicit still. It was to these highland foothills with their secret bothies that Ramsay turned for his staff, hiring the stillmen to run his new distillery. Ramsay also built a vast mansion, Fasque, which ultimately dragged him into debt, and Fettercairn was sold to a Liverpudlian merchant family named Gladstone in 1829. If that name sounds familiar, it should – one of the sons, William Ewart Gladstone, went on to be prime minister of the United Kingdom four times. Gladstone abolished the taxes on malt and the angel’s share, and allowed scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time. 

Fettercairn changed hands many times over the years, was razed by fire, shut in 1926 as the postwar lean times bit, reopened 13 years later, doubled capacity in the 1960s, and is now owned by Whyte and Mackay, where thus far it was mostly used for blends. As an Irish whiskey lover, most of this seems completely bizarre – to have all that history and heritage just waiting to be put into action as part of a brand. They have so many stories just waiting to be told – even their distillery manager, Stewart Walker, seems like he was born for the distillery’s solo run. Walker is a native of the village and a born communicator; he says he is delighted to see the distillery he has worked in for three decades be celebrated for its many merits. After all, it is as unique as the unicorn crest suggests. 

In the 1960s, workers were hosing down the stills when they realised that their work was affecting the spirit, adding an extra layer of reflux. So they had the bright idea of adding a water feature to the neck of the spirit stills. It is quite the sight to behold – water being brought in from a small reservoir of water collected from a local burn, piped into the still house, then coursing down the outside of a still neck from a brass ring, being collected and then sent back to the reservoir. According to your hosts, the only other still to feature such a bizarre contraption is fellow Emperador/W&M stablemate Dalmore, which at least had the decency to hide its strange feature under a layer of copper. Temperature controls on the neck of a still are not unknown – Blackwater Distillery in Ireland has still what are effectively grappa stills, with internal temperature controls on the neck. But Fettercairn brandishes its steampunk water feature like a body modification, out there for all to see. 

Fettercairn had a stab at a solo career in the last few years – Old Fettercairn was a NAS bottling in the 1980s, and a 12-year-old single malt was released as ‘1824’. Fior and Fasque appeared ten years ago, opting for a more sleek and elegant look. But they also failed to set the world alight. Aside from these there were the usual peppering of indie bottlings, but it is only in the last 18 months that the distillery has been given a more complete offering. That said, there are gaps in the portfolio. The range jumps from a 12 year old to a 28 in the blink of an eye, then scales the giddy peaks of premiumisation with a 40 year old finished in an apostoles Sherry cask and a 50, finished in a tawny port pipe. These ring up at a challenging stg£3,000 and an eye-watering stg£10,000 respectively. But it is the space between the stg£50 12-year-old and the stg£500 28-year-old that needs to be filled – and Fettercairn has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, with warehouses on site filled with dusty casks just waiting to be discovered (even though the plundering of those same warehouses for blends is why the gap exists). 

So they have the past, they have the future, they have the plans, and crucially, they have the financial backing. But how do you get folks to sit up and take notice? How do you catch the attention of whisky lovers? How do you gain purchase in the crowded hearts of the malt masses? Well, you can invite a few of them round, which is where this moves from talking about whisky to talking about talking about whisky. Please join me now as I draw back the velvet drapes and invite you into the gold-gilt world of the influencer as I enjoy 36 hours of corporate seduction in a suprasternal notch of the Scottish highlands. 

Ah Nethermill House, a place trapped in time. While considerable amounts of money have been spent on the distillery visitors centre for their brand reawakening, the sizeable house adjacent to the facility itself is as yet untouched. It’s hard to put a year on exactly when it was last done up, but I would hazard a guess that it is somewhere in the late Seventies or early Eighties. As a result it is a glorious time capsule – bedrooms are done out in colour schemes, one is a pastel moss green, another is mauve, the kitchen has a serving hatch, and the loft has been converted into a games room, complete with snooker table. It is like the set of a BBC Play For Today, and as I waited for the rest of the guests to arrive I half expected Beverly Moss to sashay in and stick on some Demis Roussos. 

One by one the rest of the guests arrived, and this part of junkets is always the best – meeting people whose work you admire, who you have chatted with online, but there, in real life, and now you have to talk to them despite being socially awkward anywhere but the internet. Add to that the anxiety of having to eat in front of them, as we were all whisked off to the former maltings for a posh picnic. I hadn’t eaten since a sleepy airport muffin at 5am, so I tried to control myself and descend into full wolverine mode, but after realising that I couldn’t chat amiably and eat at the same time I just focussed on the latter, with my head down, like a rodent. 

After that we had a tour of the distillery itself with Stewart Walker. We strolled up the fields to visit the water source, had a ramble around the warehouse and tried some magnificent drams, and got to pick up some quality lore. One cask was bought decades ago by a Japanese couple with a view to opening it on their 40th wedding anniversary. They divorced on their 38th. The cask still sits there, now destined for their kids. Life comes at you fast, but in whiskey, it comes at you slow. 

In the afternoon we had a talk from David Farquhar of IGS Vertical Farm. It might seem like a random thing to happen on a drinks junket, but in many ways it isn’t – whisky is an agricultural product, after all. Farquhar talked us through what Intelligent Growth Solutions do – they build vertical farms, effectively tray upon tray of crops all tended to by robots, all with a unique digitally monitored ecosystem guided by the gloriously dystopian sounding ‘weather recipe’. Obviously the first question asked was – does this work for barley? My inner luddite was delighted to learn that no, it does not – it works primarily for physically smaller crops. It’s an interesting concept when you consider the debates around terroir – will crops from these floating farms have less soul than those from the soil? Maybe, but if you’re starving to death, you won’t really give a fuck about what soil types it grew in. 

Then we were off to Glen Dye, a series of beautiful old stone cottages which are run as holiday homes by descendants of the Gladstones. There we dined some more, drank some more, and at some point I collapsed into bed, for the following day we were to earn our keep. 

What made this trip interesting was that the brand, whilst fully formed, is still in a relative infancy, so it was a rare treat to take part in a focus group. We were talked through plans for the brand, for bottlings within that 12-20 gap, and just terms and phrases within the industry – is small batch meaningless, how rare is rare, that sort of thing. I just sat there quietly, as I genuinely don’t know much about whisky, especially compared to the folks in that room – I am Jedward to their Schoenberg. 

After that it was more amazing food, and off to the airport. It was a whirlwind 36 hours, but one that I have thought of often in the last few weeks as isolation and quarantine took hold. As an Irish whiskey lover, one my takehomes from the trip (apart from an insanely generous swagbag) was this: There are distilleries like Fettercairn all over Scotland, with mountains of excellent mature stock, so many that they sometimes struggle to find their voice in the market, a spot on the supermarket shelf or a place in our hearts. Irish whiskey has a long way to go to catch up; the power of the industry, the ability to hire PR firms, marketing experts, specialists in whisky comms and branding to help create these remarkable events, these remarkable identities for products. There is a massive industry in Scotland based around all this, and that is what we need to look towards – a fully functioning whisky ecosystem that creates and sustains jobs across the sector. In the meantime, feel free to live vicariously through these ten million photos I took:

Lemony snippets and a series of unfortunate pre-event leaks

I have no idea where Cork Dry Gin is made. I assume Midleton, but I’ve never heard anyone from there talk about the stuff. Perhaps this is because the brand is just so jaded that no-one can be bothered to mention it, especially when all the chatter these days is about whiskey. But gin is huge – especially small gin, from boutique producers. So if anything is surprising it’s that it has taken this long for Midleton to produce another gin.

The microdistillery in Midleton is the perfect source, being the boutique-y-est string to Midleton’s mighty bow, and so it is that the new gin is being released under the Method & Madness label. We know this because an offie in the North blew their wad and uploaded the info about a month before the launch date.

And so it is we have this confusing puddle of product info:

At Method and Madness, we bottle the very best. We expertly blend the smoothest cream and the finest gin and just a hint of lemonyness and Irish gorse flower to create the most exquisite, velvety gin. Served straight from the bottle or draped over ice, Method and Madness Gin is a taste of Midleton Distillery you’ll never forget.

A delicious combination of black lemon,Irish gorse flower and Method and Madness gin.

Victorian cream gin was more like a liqueur – effectively an Irish cream with gin instead of whiskey – whereas the more modern iteration sees cream used as botanical rather than being added directly. Going by the clear liquid in this M&M release, this is the modern style. – Update – there’s no feckin’ cream in this:

Gorse – or furze, or whins if you’re Scottish  – produce small yellow flowers that smell like coconut. From the Wildflowers Of Ireland site:

‘Get a few handfuls of the yellow blossoms of the furze and boil them in water. Give the water as a dose to the horse and this will cure worms’.  

From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC 782:356 From Co Kerry.

There’s also a well-know country saying : “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”.

So an aphrodisiac that also cures worms. My prayers have been answered.

Black lemons are black, but are not lemons. They are dried limes, and are used in Persian cooking. So you have local hedgerow botanicals, exotic fruity spice, and cream. Should be interesting. Unless the unwitting leak was in fact a false flag designed to discredit dickheads like me who practically soiled themselves in their rush to share it on social media. The presence of the word ‘lemonyness’ suggests it might be.

Anyway, here is the lemony fresh press release that clears up some of my seemingly innate confusion:

Irish Distillers has unveiled METHOD AND MADNESS Irish Micro Distilled Gin; a bold step into the modern premium gin market and the first release from the Micro Distillery, Midleton. The new METHOD AND MADNESS release pays homage to the historic links to gin in County Cork and underlines the company’s commitment to experimentation and innovation.

Bringing together the experience and expertise of Midleton’s Masters and Apprentices, METHOD AND MADNESS Gin is the result of an exploration into historic gin recipes from 1798, which have been preserved at Midleton Distillery, and months of research into how botanicals work together to create unique flavours in gin.

Overseen by Master Distiller, Brian Nation, and Apprentice Distiller, Henry Donnelly, the gin has been distilled in ‘Mickey’s Belly’*, Ireland’s oldest gin still first commissioned in 1958, at the Micro Distillery, Midleton. The new release benefits from an eclectic fusion of 16 botanicals led by black lemon and Irish gorse flower – imparting notes of citrus and spice with subtle earthy undertones. METHOD AND MADNESS Gin is bottled at 43% ABV and is available in Ireland and Global Travel Retail from March 2019, at the RRP of €50 per 70cl bottle, ahead of a wider release in global markets from July.

To inform the creation of METHOD AND MADNESS Gin, Brian Nation and Henry Donnelly consulted with Irish Distillers Archivist, Carol Quinn, to understand the rich history of gin production in County Cork. In the 18th Century, Cork was a mercantile city and a centre of production for gin and rectified spirits. Merchants such as the Murphy family, who founded Midleton Distillery in 1825, imported a rich variety of spices and botanicals to which distillers had access. In the 1930s, Max Crockett – father of Master Distiller Emeritus, Barry Crockett – created the first commercially produced gin in Ireland, Cork Dry Gin.

A notebook kept in the Midleton Distillery archive dating back to the 1790s, written by a rectifier in Cork called William Coldwell, details the recipes, botanicals and methods that informed the creation of Irish Distillers’ Cork Crimson Gin in 2005. A premium pot still gin, Cork Crimson Gin provided the primary inspiration for Brian and Henry in reimagining the recipe for METHOD AND MADNESS Gin over the past year.

Henry Donnelly, Apprentice Distiller at the Micro Distillery, Midleton, commented: “It has been an incredible journey over the past year in pouring over our historic gin recipes, consulting with our Master Distiller Brian Nation and trialing different recipes in the Micro Distillery to bring METHOD AND MADNESS Gin to life. Midleton and Cork are steeped in gin heritage, so to be able to combine the knowledge and tools of the past with the skills of the present to create a gin for the future has been a real honour.”

Brian Nation, Master Distiller at Midleton Distillery, added: “The release of our METHOD AND MADNESS Gin represents the next chapter in the story of us re-writing what a modern Irish spirits company can be. Through our work with the Apprentices at the Micro Distillery, Midleton, we continue to innovate and experiment with different grains, distillation methods and spirit types and look forward to sharing our creations with the world in the coming years. As a Cork native myself, bringing the spirit of premium Irish gin back to the city has been a personal highlight – and one that I look forward to enjoying being a part of for many years to come.”

Brendan Buckley, Innovation and Specialty Brands Director at Irish Distillers, concluded: “At the very core of METHOD AND MADNESS is a commitment to push the boundaries of what we can achieve in Midleton Distillery, and I believe that taking a confident leap into the modern premium gin category is the very definition of this mindset. Many new producers in Ireland are releasing gins while their whiskeys mature, but we are in no terms late to the party – in true METHOD AND MADNESS style, we are entering the gin market using our passion and unrivalled distilling expertise as our guide.”

First unveiled in February 2017, METHOD AND MADNESS aims to harness the creativity of Midleton’s whiskey masters through the fresh talent of its apprentices. Taking inspiration from the famous Shakespearean quote, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t’, METHOD AND MADNESS is designed to reflect a next generation Irish spirit brand with a measure of curiosity and intrigue (MADNESS), while honouring the tradition and expertise grounded in the generations of expertise at the Midleton Distillery (METHOD).

*Mickey’s Belly is named after Michael Hurley, a Distiller at Midleton Distillery for 45 years. Michael Hurley worked in the Vat House at Midleton. He worked for Irish Distillers for 45 years, beginning his career with the Cork Distilleries Company where he was employed as a clerk in the Morrison’s Island Head Office. He then transferred to the watercourse Distillery where he worked for 6 years before coming out to Midleton. A Customs official or ‘Watcher’ named Dickie Cashman gave the still the nickname ‘Mickey’s Belly’ in his honour. It too had come in from Cork to work in Midleton.

METHOD AND MADNESS Gin Tasting Notes by Master Distiller Brian Nation

Nose: Lemon balm and shredded ginger with a unique flavour from the wild Irish gorse flower

Taste: Spicy pine and notes of earthy woodland frost balanced with a burst of citrus

Finish: Clean and long with a lingering rooted orange citrus and slowly roasted spice

I’m at this thing today, so will post 10,000 images from it later on. Til then, some thoughts: Another gin in a crowded market. I assume IDL have done their homework and see that there is the demand for a new gin, and at least under the M&M brand they can release and shelve if it doesn’t gain traction. Also – another notebook? I have no doubt that there is an actual notebook or ten in those archives, but as this is the second release to come from ye old fifty shades of grain, I’d wager you will be good for one or two more before drinkers get a little sceptical. Finally – that is one beautiful bottle. I look forward to falling into a case of them today. On that note: Let’s get facked aaaaaaaaap.


The Moebius

Shift work is inhuman. There is something utterly unnatural about being awake all night. There are some who thrive on shift work, but they are a minority – most of us do it for the money, or because it suits our homelife, but very few do it because they like it. I only did nine months shift work in my life and I nearly lost my mind. Part of it was my age – I was in my forties and had four small kids, so the combination of little sleep by day and a shift pattern that was all over the place, meant I had to get out. I can still remember the odd feeling of being at my desk in the wee hours. You’d look at the clock – it’s 3.15am. You’d look at it an hour later – it’s 3.25am. Time becomes a pliable entity as your exhausted mind starts to play games with you – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop. Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was still awake, and would forget entire conversations, or imagine they were dreams. But at least I wasn’t alone in there – in an emergency department, you are never alone.

I like the idea of distilleries that can practically run themselves. Many of the modern ones do – as one distiller pointed out to me, machines make the best whiskey, and humans are really surplus to requirements for modern operations like Dalmunach. But there are older distilleries that spearheaded this drive to remove the human element from distilling.  Sat on the slopes of the Ben Rinnes range, the wonderfully named Allt-A-Bhainne was built by Seagrams in 1975 to create malt for blends, primarily for Chivas Regal, but it does appear in indie bottlings from time to time.

I was in a mini-bus with a group of German whisky retailers as we tooled past the strangely modernist building. They, being massive whisky nerds, asked the driver to turn around so we could go back and have a look around. And so we did.

 

The distillery is quite modern in comparison to some of the chocolate-box scenes at places like Strathisla. Allt-A-Bhainne has no warehouses, and it rattles out 4.5 million litres of spirit per year. Water comes from the Ben Rinnes, and the distillery’s name translates from Gaelic as Burn Of Milk. While bhainne has the same meaning in both Irish and Scots, the way we would pronounce the name of this distillery is different – ollt-err-vane seems to be the common way over there, while we would go with alt-a-vonya.

The similarities between the languages were the sole reason I bought this bottling of Allt-A-Bhainne a year or two ago, but I felt more inclined to open it after being to the distillery. It was a curious place – nobody was around, and those vents are like something from an old sci-fi B-movie, when set and prop designers thought that angular aluminium would be all we would ever need in the future.

So Allt-A-Bhainne has an ancient name, retro-futuristic design and one poor operator stuck on shift in that one big room where everything happens. My bottle came from Douglas Laing’s excellent Provenance range. Distilled in 2008 and aged in refill hogshead, this was bottled in 2015 at 46% and is non-chill filtered. No pressure in reviewing this one, as it was cheap as chips – 40 euro from Master Of Malt. 

Nose: Sulphur. Sulphur to the point that I actually thought it might be the glass (it wasn’t). It has all those ester notes – nail polish remover, must, bananas, white pepper, an astringent blue cheese note that isn’t entirely unpleasant. Like Sex Panther, it stings the nostrils – although not in a good way.

Palate: After the general brimstone of the nose I was ready for something unpleasant, but this is pretty uneventful. I can see how this would provide balance in a blend, but something tells me I would prefer to be drinking its counterpoint rather than this. There’s a little caramel, a little bit of the aspartame sweetness of a Creme Egg, and a lot of fuck-all.

Finish: Mercifully brief.

I seem to live my dramming life in a state of almost constant disappointment. So many whiskeys I have tried recently have just let me down – but at least this one was a cheap punt and worth a shot. It’s hard to know why this bottling isn’t as impressive as I had hoped – maybe I should just spend another ten or twenty euro and get something with more weight.

I loved A’Bunadh – now completely out of my price range – and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, so perhaps I do just need something bolder than this also-ran. I was keen to try it due to its odd name, interesting design and the fact that the distillery has no bottlings of its own, only under indie labels. Now I can see why. I’m not angry, just disappointed, which is why I am washing away the taste with a drop of the sourced seven-year-old single malt bottled by the recently completed Boann distillery. Bourbon aged, sherry finished, this is nothing new, or shocking, or weird, but is just a nice whiskey. I also love the sourced seven from Glendalough. I assume both seven year olds come from the same source (Bushmills?), as they both have a similar citrus note, although it’s worth remembering that this is coming from someone who had operations on his sinuses as a kid and thus has the olfactory capacity of Selma Bouvier. 

The Whistler Blue Note – for that is what Boann are calling this – is rich and creamy, lots of coffee, toffee, hints of aniseed, that citrus, a little Oxo cube on the nose, and a lot of smooth warmth, as opposed to the ugly heat from the Allt-A-Bhainne. It’s a reminder that while we don’t have the variety of distilleries here, and all our older stock comes from three places, at least those three places generally made – and make – great whiskey. That said, I do look forward to a dystopian day down the road when we have our own version of Allt-A-Bhainne – an odd, lonely distillery that produces odd spirit that exists purely to make other elements in a blend look better. 

The Glorious Now

Craft used to mean strength. The original word in German and Scandinavian languages meant power, or might, but it was in Old English that the meaning was expanded to include dexterity or a skill in art or science. Modern use – and abuse – of the term by food marketing firms has led to it becoming almost completely without meaning, but it still resonates. It suggests a more human product, as though somehow machines make soulless goods, and only the touch of a human hand can somehow magically imbue a product with a greater flavour, personality or depth of character.

All over the world, whiskey producers are angling to leverage the word craft to their advantage. Somehow the romance of small firms, individual brands, and the idea of the distilling auteur have embedded in the minds of consumers. But what does craft actually mean? That was the question posed by Alexandre Ricard in late 2014. The CEO of Pernod Ricard said he was struggling with the term, and questioning what defined a craft spirit – was it a question of scale, or of skill? The firm’s more recent explorations of the term included buying Smooth Ambler, thereby buying into two categories they were underexposed in – ‘craft’ spirits and bourbon. But even as he asked the question, Ricard already had plans to explore craft on his firm’s own terms, and on its own ground.

The micro distillery in Midleton opened with much fanfare in late 2015 just as the sales of Jameson really hit their stride, charging past the five million case mark. The micro distillery was a departure for Midleton, bringing operations back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades. It also eschewed automation and digital displays in favour of levers and dials. Since opening, it has served a dual purpose; as a showpiece for the tours of the distillery, and also as an incubation space for experimentation.

The sheer scale of the main plant is breathtaking, but not especially romantic. Its vast size also means that experimentation is a challenge, as any new methods or ingredients would see the company forced to commit to working with large quantities. Great if you have a success, not so much if you create a dud. So the microdistillery has become a breeding ground for experimentation, a fact celebrated recently under the umbrella of the Methods & Madness range. As part of that range’s launch, a select group of whiskey bloggers, journalists, influencers and one clueless local (me) were invited to the Irish Whiskey Academy for a tasting of some of their experiments with Master Distiller Brian Nation.

Like everything in life worth doing, creating new distillates in the microdistillery wasn’t the easiest task, given that the wash is still being made in the main plant, a fact they hope to rectify by building a brewhouse within the microdistillery building: “We’re hopeful – we’re applying in the next year for some form of brewing and it’s a little bit up in the air at the moment whether we try to put a brewing facility up above and send the wash down into the microdistillery, or whether we install a full brewhouse down into the micro,” Nation explains.

“Preferentially we would like to see the brewhouse down there but what it does mean is that you have to bring a lot of grain handling down to the building and that brings its own issues around ATEX and dust zones. We have a building alongside the micro that we need to see if we can house all of that, but that would be the ideal for us.

“Because then you have the whole place compact in one area, you can play around with your cereals – we spoke a little while ago about playing around with different yeast types and you really have the opportunity to explore what is possible from the micro.”

But main plant’s brewhouse is not micro – it is macro.

“That is part of the problem. So you are taking a brew through a mash filter and putting just one or two into a fermenter, but then you have to make sure that you get the wort up above the cooling coils of the fermenter, because if you don’t then you actually kill it all off, so it is actually quite difficult at the moment.

“What we’re doing is to try and use as much of the time available to us without having the brewing capabilities, so hopefully by the end of next year we should have something.

“When we had opportunities in the main plant we tried different cereals, and they are the next whiskeys that we are going to taste. The first thing we’re going to taste is what we were making when we were in the microdistillery this morning, which is a barley and malt mash – about 60% barley and 40% malt.

“If you were to compare it to the pot still distillate that we produce up in the main plant, it has a lot of those characteristics, but for us it tends to have a little bit more character in it, it has a bit more spice and more fruitiness and for me I tend to get a little bit of clove and liquorice coming through it as well.  This is at 40%; obviously we run the pot stills down there at 84.4% but we watered it down as we didn’t want to overwhelm you.

“For a new make spirit – and this is coming back to the triple distillation process but also coming back to the use of unmalted barley – you have creaminess on the mouthfeel as well, and I feel it’s good to showcase to people that you get that creaminess in the new spirit as well, it’s not a really harsh whiskey to take, even thought it’s a new distillate.”

Next up was the rye. Typically associated with the northeastern United States, rye whiskey is undergoing a global resurgence after almost completely disappearing during and after Prohibition. A typical rye whiskey will be at least 51% rye, with malted barley and corn. Midleton’s take is slightly different: “So this is a mash bill of rye and malted barley so we effectively replaced the barley with rye and we put it through our batch brewing process above, fermented it and brought it down here where it was distilled.

“It’s typically about 60/40 (rye/malt). What we found  from the distillate is that on the nose it seems a harder note coming through it, a little less creamy. You know sometimes the way sometimes when you taste something it brings back a memory rather than a scientific taste? For me this reminds me of some boiled sweets that you used to get – the rhubarb and custard ones. But you can see – this has gone through the same process and it actually is quite different (from the pot still spirit) in taste and flavour, there’s still the spiciness there as well, and for me you tend to get that malty characteristic coming through as well.”

Midleton are obviously keen on this spicy new distillate, as they have committed to another aspect of the craft movement – the idea of grain to glass traceability.

“We’re quite excited about the rye. We have sown a hundred and 60 acres of rye in Enniscorthy – two different types of rye, and that should be harvested in September of this year, and the plan is to use that for distillation. We’re quite excited about that – because we saw how good this rye turned out. And were actually looking at doing this on our grain side, our column side.”

As for what a rye spirit from a column still would go into: “It’s going to be something new – we have a few ideas but we’re not going to divulge that at the moment; but effectively what we’re going to do, or at least what we are aiming for, is that instead of going for the 60/40 split it would be 100% rye.”

While they haven’t used a malted rye yet, they may in the future depending on the yields from the harvest in the autumn. Part of the narrative of the foundation of the microdistillery was the discovery of a lost recipe book belonging to John Jameson II.  So did Jameson The Second have any rye recipes from 100 years ago?

“There  are some John Jameson recipes that show an inclusion of rye in it so that’s one of the reasons that we actually started looking at rye, but now we are looking at different ways of doing a full rye just to see what it’s like.”

As for the taste of the rye distillate, it differs slightly from its pot still mixed mash cousin: “What I like about what we are producing here is that even on the taste – because of the triple distillation and the smoothness of the triple distillation they are quite palatable even as a distillate on their own. What we have here is straight off the stills, but what we have done with some of it is put it straight into casks – we kept very little of the distillate, the last of the distillate is effectively gone today what we have tried to do as well is to see how well they are going to mature – we are laying out stocks in normal barrels but we are also trying to put them into smaller barrels because you tend to get a faster maturation time there and it gives you a better feel for how maturation is going to progress on a bigger scale as well so we are quite happy with that at the moment.

“The other side of it as well is that when we – and again this is a learning process for us – when you decide to take something like rye into your plant and you try to mill it using equipment for barley, if you have a hammer mill, it’s amazing the impact it has on your capacity and the speed at which you can mill material through and that was a big learning curve for us because you assume a hammer mill will do what it needs to for any grain but depending on the type of grain, depending on the density of the grain, depending on the size of the grain, it’s going to have an impact, so we are seeing that as we go along as well.”

But if the rye was a challenge to distill, the next sample was the fruits of some very intensive labours. Oats may make an incredibly healthy breakfast cereal, having been recently proved to aid gut and heart health, but they did little good to Brian Nation’s health as he struggled to distill them.

Historically oats would have been used in brewing in the Middle Ages, but very few distillers use them to make whiskey, save Silver Western Oat whiskey from High West – another craft distillery that was on Pernod’s shopping list in the run up to the Smooth Ambler acquisition, before High West ultimately succumbed to Constellation Brands.

As Nation discovered, there is a reason few people distill with oats.

“What we found with the oats is that they are a nightmare to process through the plant because it has such an amount of husk on it and it is quite a light grain, it was unbelievable what we went through, when you have gristbins  that are filling up with half – say we took six tonnes into a gristbin of barley, and the gristbin was full, three tonnes of oats would fill the same space, and they were choking the mills. We thought this would be easy – it’s simple, it is such an easy grain to deal with – and then we tried to process and brew and it was quite difficult. Again, another learning curve.

“I would probably say that we are fairly unique in this (the use of oats) at the moment. Normally what you would have found is that oats would have been put into a mash bill at a very small percentage for a lauter tun or a mash tun because what it did was it aided filtration.

“It didn’t really add anything to the flavour at the time but it was more of an aid for ensuring that your filter beds had enough of a grist of oats in it to allow the drainage to come though, whereas we are using it now at a much higher percentage to see what the impact on the flavor is. We were pleasantly surprised with it.

“This is a mash bill of malted barley and oats, again replacing the barley with the oats so again it’s a 60/40. What we felt with the flavour from this is that it tends to come across a little bit lighter but you do tend to have this oatmeal, cereal-bar notes coming through. Still has creaminess – not the same level of fruit as the rye or pot still, but still a quite interesting distillate. A dryer finish, and that cereal note following through but again you can see the difference that the cereal has made on the overall distillate side.”

Of course, the three distillates were just a sample of what has been taking place in the microdistillery: “At this stage I think we have 11 types of distillate that we have produced. Not all of them fantastic, but we are seeing how they mature because sometimes you might produce a distillate that that on its own may be too heavy or whatever, but when you put it into a barrel and mature it a little and see what the impact is there; it might actually combine very well. That’s what we have done with anything we have produced at the moment.”

And while they have used traditional-size casks, Nation explains how they also use micro-barrels for their micro distillate.

“Three to five-litre barrels. We get them specially made. It sounds small, but you have to remember the volume of distillate that we are producing down here compared to up there (in the main plant). The maximum output for this plant is 50,000LA on a five day operation a year, obviously if you went on a 24 hour period you would double that or maybe get it to 120,000LA. For us to be able to put away some of it in normal barrels and then use the three or five litre barrels to see how it gets on.”

Along with planning to create a brewhouse at the site of the microdistilery, they are also considering a maturation space in the same historic buildings, meaning that you have the full cycle of whiskey making in one historic place. As for the main distillery, they just took delivery of another three massive pot stills from Forsyths. Nation talks about the stills and how they were so large they had to be shaped by hand, as the machines could not accommodate their extraordinary size. He talks about being in Rothes and seeing one coppersmith inside the still and another outside, hammering every spot on the surface of the stills. “That is skill; that is craft,” he says.

He is right: Craft isn’t about size, but about skill. The craft of Midleton Distillery goes back to the traditional meaning of the word – strength in art, science and technology. The chronophobia of the whiskey scene – boosted by over-eager marketing departments – has led to a situation where a stunning feat of modern engineering like Midleton is treated like a mild embarrassment. It’s an attitude that brings to mind the quote from Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur L’Art at the start of Walter Benjamin’s Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction:

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Valéry wrote those words in 1931, but they might as well have been written today, as they express the same, timeless fear – that scientific advancement means the death of the soul. The team in Midleton have shown that it is their technological might that enables them to experiment and find new ways to practice an age-old skill. As the Jameson juggernaut rolls on, it will be in the trials and errors of the microdistillery that some of the most interesting work takes place. As noted Jameson lover Samuel Beckett wrote: No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

The final frontier

In June 1940, a man walked from the surf onto a beach on the Dingle peninsula. He stopped to bury a radio transmitter in the sand, walked inland until he stumbled across an old railway line and then headed towards the town of Dingle. With an hour to kill until the bus to Tralee, he accepted an invitation into a local pub – even though it was 7am. There, he had three whiskeys and, in the grand Irish tradition of drinking on public transport, he bought a bottle of whiskey for the journey. In Tralee he got on the Dublin train, and spent much of the journey talking about how ‘that great man Hitler would set Ireland free’. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in Dublin, and identified as Walter Simon – a German spy. In fact, he was one of two spies who tried to enter England via the wild western frontiers of the Kerry coast, although he was the only one undone by a lethal combination of Kerry hospitality and Irish whiskey.

If you saw the Dingle peninsula, you could see its appeal to a U-boat captain looking to land a covert operative – miles and miles of jagged coastline and sparse population give parts of it the feel of an abandoned outpost on some deserted, beautiful planet. When you go to Dingle from almost anywhere outside Kerry, it feels like you have crossed a timezone or two. You can’t just got to Dingle for the night – you have to commit to a trip down there, clear your schedule for a few days.

The last time I spoke to Oliver Hughes, he asked me to come down for a festive celebration in Dingle Distillery to mark the release of their first whiskey. I could have made it, albeit for just a few hours, but then I wouldn’t be able to relax, as I had work the next morning. So with a heavy heart I declined. I felt terrible about it – when I was took part in the Dingle Whiskey School I had been talking to Oliver and the rest of the staff about how hard it was to get journalists to cover events outside The Pale, especially at the far end of the country. He made the point that he could have built the distillery somewhere in the hinterland of Dublin, but he loved Dingle, and knew it was a special place, so for him there was nowhere else.

One evening during the whiskey school he drove myself and fellow journalist Eleanor Cosgrove along Slea Head, pointing out various landmarks such as the Sleeping Giant, the site of the village in Ryan’s Daughter (sadly levelled after filming finished because the council couldn’t sort out the insurance) and the iconic Dunquin Pier. At the top of the long zig-zag down to the pier is a shed, held to the ground with ropes and rocks, because when a storm hits here, everything is fair game – the terrifying storm scenes of Ryan’s Daughter weren’t shot on a soundstage; in fact, due to the temperamental Irish weather, some of the beach scenes where sun was required were shot in South Africa. The trip around the peninsula was a memorable one, as Oliver told us some great stories about his time in Kerry, as well as a few insane tales from his days as a barrister.

That night Oliver brought us and some of the Founding Fathers (the title for investors in the distillery) out for dinner to Ashe’s. It was there we got to see the actual bar tab run up by Bob Mitchum during the filming of David Lean’s beautiful epic. Much like Walter Simon, Mitchum indulged in a dram or two when in the area.

Over dinner we all chatted and got to know each other, Oliver cracking jokes and keeping the chat and wine flowing. He was a great host, despite the fact that he was a busy man – when I met him for a dram before dinner in Dick Mack’s, he was tucked away in the back talking over some new ideas he had with business associates. He was an ‘idea guy’ – someone who was almost plagued with creative visions. How else could he have had the foresight to start a craft beer business in Ireland? I remember walking into the Porterhouse on Parliament Street in the late Nineties and ordering a pint of Heineken, only to be told they didn’t have it on tap. I thought ‘haha this place is doomed’ and ordered a bottle of the heinous swill instead, refusing to try anything new. Thankfully, there are people out there who weren’t as obnoxiously close-minded as I, and his business thrived. But I don’t believe he was trying to create an empire, or even build a legacy, he just wanted people to try something new. What he did for Ireland was to change the way people thought about beer – no longer was it a few different types of nondescript swill to get shamefacedly blotto on. With the craft beer movement it was now something to be enjoyed, explored, celebrated.

The last time I saw Oliver in person was at Whiskey Live Dublin. I was at the Tamdhu/Glengoyne stand trying a few drams when suddenly he appeared and started talking to the assembled group about his distillery, his whiskey, his vision. I’m not sure the Scottish reps quite knew what to do as he completely took over their pitch by sheer force of will. He had a gloriously punk DIY attitude, despite the pinstripes. He was a pioneer, a man on the wild frontiers of food and drink. Little wonder then that he chose to build his distillery on Ireland’s western front.

In a world of bland corporate personalities, he was a breath of fresh air – electric, acerbic, outspoken – and, at 57, far too young to die.

Footnote: You can read some of Oliver’s posts on the original Dingle Distillery blog here.

Kindred spirits

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.

Getting there:

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!

Getting around:

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 cost:

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.