All that glitters

Do you remember Dingle Gold? It was a sourced blend, and it wasn’t very good, even by the humdrum standards of the most unchallenging blends. Of course, you wouldn’t expect too much given how it crashed into existence. 

The year was 2010 and the Porterhouse Group were going to be the only Irish firm at the Shanghai World Expo. Known as the ‘economic olympics’ the expo would be their springboard into the Asian market – so they invested €1.35 million and 18 months of hard into securing a space for their pop-up pub, which would showcase their craft beers to some 70 million visitors during the expo’s six-month duration. But it wasn’t just going to be about craft beer. Oliver Hughes – the visionary founder of the Porterhouse who died suddenly in 2016 – was already planning a distillery here in Ireland. To show just how confusing whiskey is to the average person, here’s this from an Irish Times piece on the Expo in 2010

Porterhouse recently started distilling its own whisky at a still in Dingle [they actually hadn’t started distilling until 2012], the first new one in 220 years. That whiskey won’t be ready in time for Expo, but the group has commissioned a range of 8-year-old and 12-year-old whiskeys from Cooley especially for the Expo.

I sincerely doubt the blend components in Dingle Gold were that old, as it was a fiery number. 

Oliver Hughes’s son Elliott, now MD of the Porterhouse Group, told me how it came into being when I interviewed him and then Dingle Master Distiller Peter Mosley in 2017: “We were doing a bar out in Shanghai at the time for the World Expo. So we built a proper full scale bar over there and this was supposed to be the best thing ever and the turnover was meant to be 400 million and all this kind of nonsense, and we had this whiskey built for over there and it did not go very well. It’s one of those non-mentioned things. It [the expo] wasn’t nearly as busy as they said it would be and the Chinese don’t drink as much beer as we anticipated. It was managed poorly.”

Mosley continued: “I don’t think the Chinese had as much disposable income as we thought.  So the Dingle Gold was never intended to sell in Ireland. I just got a phonecall from Oliver saying ‘there’s a load of whiskey on the quays, can you organise it to go somewhere?’ and it sat in storage for months before we did anything about shipping it. We weren’t ready for it, we didn’t have any sale structure or staff, I think Mary [Ferriter, Dingle Distillery manager] here sold most of it.” 

Elliot: “And we sold lots of it through our own bars in Irish coffees. But in hindsight if we were to do it again i think we certainly wouldn’t. I think we were new to the market, we made a decision and it probably wasn’t the right decision, but at that time nobody was doing anything in Irish whiskey. Oliver was all about the ideas, Liam Lahart [Oliver’s cousin and co-founder] would then have to find out how we would pay for it.”

Mosley: “And I would have to figure out how we were going to do it.”

Elliot: “So a different way of operating completely.”

Mosley: “So Elliott is the ideas guy now.”

He certainly is: Since that interview three years ago, Dingle’s head distiller Michael Walsh moved to Boann Distillery as master distiller, and Dingle managed something of a coup by luring Graham Coull away from Glen Moray in beautiful Speyside to the beautiful arse end of Ireland. Obviously whiskey is a long game, so it will be some time until we get to sample Coull’s creations, but there are positive noises:

Now comes their fifth batch of single malt, and an expanded reach – one of the primary complaints about Dingle is how hard it can be to come by their bottles; little wonder given that they only fill four casks a day. I’ll let the press release take it from here: 

The Batch 5 will make history as the biggest release to date, a total of 36,500 bottles. Five hundred of those will  be bottled at cask strength (59.3% abv) as a tribute to the 500 Founding Fathers (and mothers), the  

people who backed the distillery at its foundation by each investing in a cask of the first spirit to  come from Dingle’s stills. 

The Batch 5 launch represents a considerable increase in volume, meaning that on this occasion  9,000 bottles can go to the United States, the remaining 27,500 being destined for Ireland, the rest  of Europe, Asia and Australasia. 

For Master Distiller Graham Coull, who joined Dingle in October 2019, this is his second batch  release. He believes that the use of Madeira casks in this whiskey adds a subtle complexity. 

“The Madeira influence adds a great depth of flavour and a kind of backbone to this remarkable  whiskey while not masking the subtle spice from the Bourbon casks or sweet tone from the Pedro  Ximenez ones”, he says.

In Ireland, the Batch 5 Single Malt will retail at €70; the Batch 5 Cask Strength at €150, will be  available exclusively online from irishmalts.ie, and rationed to one bottle per customer. 

Full disclosure – while I love what Dingle represents as the first green shoot in a national resurgence of whiskey distilling, I haven’t been wild about the few samples I had. I always thought there was just too much fire and heat in them. I can’t blame it all on youth either – the three to four year old Great Northern whiskeys that I have tried are excellent and show that youth can be smooth and rich. But this Dingle is a decent dram at what is not an outlandish price. A lot of toffee sweetness on the nose, custard on the palate and a decent length of finish, with pleasant astringency. A solid, smashable dram – would be interesting to try the CS and see where it takes you. 

Looking back over the Dingle story, you can see how things change – in their prospectus they outlined a range of drinks, many of which never materialised. I think that was part of the charm – the sense of chaos that comes with something smashing barriers and making history. They did what they could to survive.

I still have my bottle of Dingle Gold, signed by Oliver, and I treasure it. It’s not worth anything, but its power is symbolic. Dingle Gold wasn’t amazing, but it was the start of something that was and is.