A toast to 2018

A festive bribe/gift from IDL. please note the attention to detail on addressing the letter to my personal lifestyle brand.

It was another boom year for Irish whiskey – Blackwater and Powerscourt both came to life, Nephin are gearing up to build, and Bono and Paddy McKillen bought into a proposed distillery for Monasterevin. It is an exciting time, and a sure sign that Irish whiskey was accelerating was the appearance of our first celebrity whiskey.

Conor McGregor has great taste in Irish whiskey – he was often seen sipping some excellent whiskeys after big bouts – so when he announced he was bringing a whiskey out, I had great expectations. Would he go for super premium, would he opt for a more approachable ten year old single malt, or even a pot still release? No, he would not. He opted for a blend, with grain from Midleton (update: Not Midleton but GND, apparently) and malt from Bushmills, the latter being a distillery which seemed to mistakenly believe he owned.

If using Bushmills stock allows you to claim you own it then half the country owns the place.

I haven’t tried Proper No. 12 – a name he was forced to settle for after his attempt at trademarking Notorious was shot down – and while there are obviously those who would knock McGregor’s drink for the sake of it, it does appear that his pricing on this release – 35 euro – is a little over the top. Still, I wouldn’t hold that against him – Irish whiskey has long had delusions about pricing, and as a result has a long way to go before it offers the value for money that Scotch does.

There is one thing that McGregor’s Proper No. 12 will do for Irish whiskey: Increase category awareness. With his tens of millions of fans, he can bring more people into the fold. We all start out on blends, and Proper No. 12 will be a gateway for a small percentage of those who try it and are curious to know more. Obviously a lot of people will drink it because they love him, and never go beyond it, as the liquid doesn’t really matter to them, because this is about his brand. And herein lies my problem with this product.

Even the slightest scrutiny of McGregor’s rhetoric in recent years should set alarm bells ringing. You can call it banter, or patter, or whatever you want, but the racism, bigotry and Islamophobic dog whistling he has engaged in is an obscenity. I admire his swagger, and his skill, but watching Khabib Nurmagomedov choke him out was incredibly satisfying after all the insults McGregor threw at him about both his faith and his family. This aspect of MMA – the war of words leading up to big bouts – makes it look less like a sport and more like a back alley bar fight. Compare the dignity and grace of Katie Taylor with McGregor’s ‘dance for me boy’ comments to Mayweather and then tell me Ireland should be proud of him. Still, as ambassadors for Irish whiskey go, McGregor is probably less tainted than John McAfee.

Yes, that John McAfee.

McGregor’s release was the whiskey headline of the year, and the release of Red Spot was a staid affair in comparison, even if it excited the nerds. Red Spot, along with Green and Yellow, are throwbacks to the old tradition of bonding. I’m not going to digress into a history lesson, because in this case it is largely irrelevant, but here is some musty press release for you to blow the dust off:

The Mitchell family commenced trading in 1805 at 10 Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin as purveyors of fine wine and confectionery. In 1887, the business expanded into whiskey bonding whereby it sent empty wine and fortified wine casks to the local Jameson Distillery on Bow Street to be filled with new single pot still spirit for maturation in the Mitchell’s cellars.

The Red Spot name was derived from the Mitchell’s practice of marking their maturing casks of whiskey with a daub of coloured paint to determine the age potential of the whiskey; with a Blue Spot, Green Spot, Yellow Spot or Red Spot indicating 7, 10, 12 or 15 years respectively. Four generations later, the company is still in the wine and spirits business under the stewardship of Jonathan Mitchell and his son Robert.

If I have to explain who these people are then why are you reading this? Also I thought the caption was embedded but it’s not and I’m really lazy.

Red is a triple-distilled, single pot still Irish whiskey that has been matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of casks pre-seasoned with Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and Marsala fortified wine. I bought a bottle for Christmas and liked it – very sweet, rich and smooth, like meself.

The problem now for the Spot family is where Blue will sit. It is meant to be a seven-year-old, while Green was meant to be a ten year old. In some super-duper premium releases, Green is a ten, but in its most common iteration it is NAS, and priced at the 50-60 mark. Yellow is a 12 and is 70-80. So where do you place a seven year old? It has to be cheaper than Yellow, so let’s say 60. What then for Green, which as a NAS is presumably aged four to seven years? To me, the easiest way round this is to do Blue as a cask-strength and place it at the 70-80 mark. Obviously I’m no consumer expert, but it will be interesting to see how Blue finds its place. The Spot family needs it though, as it currently looks like three freshers off to a traffic light ball, adorned with yellow, red and green badges, bootcut jeans, Rockports and Ben Sherman shirts. Or maybe Blue Spot will just look like a paramedic showing up at 3am to stop them from choking on their own tongues.

It was a big year for Irish Distillers Limited – they bought a brewery to secure casks for Caskmates, and also supposedly sorta kinda announced they were building a distillery that would be seperate from their current base in Midleton. Beyond that they continued to release single casks in connection with various whiskey pubs, with a barrage of Powers and Redbreast releases keeping the collectors running around the country like the cast of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and keeping a lot of whiskey pubs loyal to the throne.

Then there is the alleged upcoming IDL release of a gin, and here comes some wild conjecture: I think it could be released under the Method and Madness label. The M&M brand, with its links to the experimentation in the microdistillery, is ideal for a gin (the gin still is also housed within the micro). M&M makes sense for this – they are coming into a crowded market and they need to go small and experimental, ie, the exact opposite of their jaded Cork Dry Gin, AKA ‘the gin your racist aunt drinks’. Gin is a wild scene and if this release from Midleton doesn’t take hold, the M&M brand allows them to quietly shelve it as an experiment that erred on the side of madness. Again, all conjecture on my part.

Outside of the industry, Ireland has a raft of new whiskey voices. It’s fantastic to see bloggers, YouTubers, Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles popping up and enjoying that general buzz of a scene that is exploding. It’s an exciting time to be a whiskey lover, and I would urge anyone out there with a passion for our native spirit to start blogging, tweeting or just larking about on the internet, as we always need more voices. And besides, there’s always the off chance you might get the odd freebie or ten.

In May I was invited over to the Spirit of Speyside festival. It is an incredible event and I recommend it to anyone interested in whiskey tourism and how to do it right – the new tasting room in Strathisla was a great education in how you make whiskey tasting fun and interested for those who don’t care all that much about whiskey. It can’t just be a science lesson and a look at some stills – you need to give people an experience they will remember. Let the nerds into the warehouse with the master distiller, but the buses of tourists need more than a wander around a stillhouse and a talk on yeast.

Obviously, this was my second time being brought over for the Spirit Of Speyside. I was there in 2015 too, and was invited largely because of all the nice things I had written for the Irish Examiner about Midleton Distillery. The festival sponsors in 2015 were Chivas, or, to give them their full title, Chivas Brothers Pernod Ricard. My invite this year also came from Chivas, and I stayed in a Chivas house next to Strathisla. Look, I am basically a giant whiskey whore and we all just need to make our peace with that fact, I have no scruples and I am in the pocket of Big Whiskey, I’m changing my name to Bill Linnane Pernod Ricard, or Jean Luc Ricard, yada yada yada.

I had assumed that as my French friends were so generous during the year, that I wouldn’t be getting a Christmas bottle. I saw other bloggers and whiskey commentators getting Redbreast 15s and Green Spots, and thought, good for them, as I hummed All The Young Dudes to myself. Then a package arrived, and I gave my wife quite the jolt when I shouted FUCK ME as I opened it and realised what it was. It was, in fact, this:

Irish Distillers has unveiled the next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition.

In collaboration with expert forestry consultant, Paddy Purser, the Irish Distillers team of Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation, and Billy Leighton, Head Blender, chose Bluebell Forest on Castle Blunden Estate to provide the oak for the second edition in the Midleton Dair Ghaelach series. Each bottle can be traced back to one of six individual 130-year-old oak trees that were carefully felled in the Bluebell Forest in May of 2013.

Bluebell Forest is found among the historic stone walls of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Since the 1600s, generations of the Blunden Family have watched over a stand of Irish oak trees with a carpet of luminescent bluebells covering the forest floor.

NO REPRO FEE 12/01/2018 Kilkenny Whiskey Guild. Pictured at a Kilkenny Whiskey Guild (KWG) tasting event are (l to r) Cyril Briscoe, KWG; Eddie Langton, KWG and Langton’s Hotel; Patrick Blunden, Castle Blunden; Kevin O’Gorman, Midleton Master of Maturation; Ger Buckley, Midleton Master Cooper; Dave McCabe, Midleton Blender; Paddy Purser, Forestry Consultant; Jim Rafferty, KWG and The Dylan Whisky Bar, in celebration of Irish Distillers next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition. This exceptional offering has been finished in barrels made from Irish oak grown in the Bluebell Forest of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves, which were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez. After drying for 15 months, the staves were worked into 29 Irish oak Hogshead casks and given a light toast.

The whiskey, made up of a selection of Midleton’s classic rich and spicy pot still distillates matured for between 12 and 23 years in American oak barrels, was then filled into the Irish oak Hogshead casks and diligently nosed and tasted each month by Leighton and O’Gorman. After a year and a half, the pair judged that the whiskey had reached the perfect balance between the spicy single pot still Irish whiskey and Irish oak characteristics.

Bottled at cask strength, between 55.30% to 56.30% ABV, and without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest is available from November 2017 in markets, including the US, Canada, Ireland, France and the UK at the recommended selling price of $280 per 70cl.

When this first hit the market I cheerfully remarked that whilst celebrating the great houses (and cashing in on their equally great history) is nice, it’s also worth remembering that they were built on the bones of a million Irish dead. It was a thought that came back to me at Powerscourt as I stood in the estate’s pet cemetery – there are headstones there from 1916, meaning that while the aristocrats were holding funerals for their dogs, Irish people were being lined up and shot because they wanted their freedom. A terrible beauty indeed.

I made this image which is why it is shit.

But enough of my inept historical punditry – to some equally inept tasting notes!

On the nose, sweet red pepper, roasted tomato, the leather/tobacco/spice trifecta in full effect. I’m not sure where this is going – it’s part savoury, part spun sugar, with that curious wood element in the background. Chinese five spice, roasted banana, Black Forest Gateau, shortbread biscuit, melted Twix, and a fair amount of WTFery. It’s not as immediate as the Redbreast 21, but then, what is?

On the palate, Euthymol toothpaste, fruit pastilles, Skittles, a lot of really bright flavours, and a lot less of those deep, dark ones of RB21. It is smooth, and elegant, but it just lacks that Krakatoa boom you want from something that costs 300. It’s a very well made whiskey, with great balance, but it’s no Dreamcask. However, it’s the element of experimentation with native wood that makes this remarkable – the ability to make a uniquely Irish whiskey that little bit more Irish.

Of course, I’m not just a corporate mouthpiece for Big Whiskey, I’m also a corporate mouthpiece for medium-sized, grassroots, bootstrap whiskey, in this case embodied by West Cork Distillers. I had eyed them with an air of Cold War paranoia over the last couple of years, seeing them as secretive and touchy. What the hell are they building in there, I growled to myself. Then a chance meeting with John O’Connell changed that, and he threw open the doors in Skibb to me, a trip that became this sprawling piece on FFT.ie. John is one of the most honest, straight shooting people in Irish whiskey, and is quietly doing great things down there. One example of this is his spirit of experimentation, such as their reverse engineering of peated whiskey.

Peated malt is hard to come by in Ireland – legend has it that one maltster did a peated batch but didn’t clean the pipes properly afterwards, with the end result that a batch of very lightly peat-tainted malted barley went to a very large and notoriously black-hearted brewer. Cue said brewer issuing a notice to all malting houses in Ireland that there was to be no more peating or they would no longer do business with them, thus ending peated Irish malt. Allegedly.  

Peat is an undiscovered country here – we have a few peated whiskeys, but as far as I know they were all peated in Scotland, using Scottish peat, and – most likely – Scottish grain. As always, I’m open to correction here, so feel free to jump in and school me.

John O’Connell comes from a background in food science, and experimentation is in his genes, so to create a peated Irish whiskey, he simply infused casks with Irish peat by charring them with a peat fire. Taking single malt aged in sherry butts, he then finished the whiskey in the peat charred cask for another six months, resulting in this release. It’s a single cask, released at cask strength. But what I love about WCD is their sense of fairness – all of their releases are incredibly reasonably priced, which may be part of the reason they don’t often get the respect they deserve.

Whiskey is a snobbish scene – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – and a value dram from WCD might get overlooked in favour of a pricier bottle. This peat cask release has a surprisingly clean nose despite the strength – not a huge amount from the peat, but a lot from the sherry – red fruits, black cherry, oatcake, maybe a little red onion jam. Nail polish, but in a good way. On the palate the strength makes itself known immediately. The peat here is minimal – I could see this being used as an intro to peated whiskeys for those who might not be ready to have their face fucked by Laphroaig. This liquid has a lot of sizzle, making way for oily, slightly smokey flavours – hickory smoked bacon, BBQ sauce and caramelised sugar. A short finish, and a fine dram for a good price. I even like the wine-bottle aesthetic they opted for.

This whiskey is a brave experiment for a small distillery and I think it’s worth a punt. Obviously, there are those who would disagree, but I love that WCD took a risk. The Irish are nothing if not inventive, and I welcome a bit of experimentation – it doesn’t matter if that is with strange casks, biodynamic barley, strange grains, local peat, or even pellets of African mahogany. The Dair Ghaelach and the WCD come from opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a super-premium release from a massive distillery with money to burn; the other is a bargain dram from a distillery that has a still which was made from a hotel boiler. But what unites them is a willingness to experiment and try new things, and for that they are both to be commended.

And so to 2019. How many more distilleries are going to make it over the line? Maybe it is just my pessimistic nature, but to me it seems like we might be hitting peak distilling. Clon are on stream, Boann are there too, Glendalough are working away at getting their whiskey distilling operation up and running, Tipp are opening in 2019 in Dundrum House. I find myself looking at the IWA distillery map from a couple of years ago and marvelling that so many have actually made it. Granted, some on the map won’t make it, but overall it is a pretty impressive feat that we went from fuck-all distilleries to this many in a short period of time. There will be teething problems, but any concerns I ever had about the integrity of our messaging has nothing on the absolute mess that is Japanese whisky.

That said, if I was an American with roots in north Cork and I bought a bottle of Kilbrin Irish whiskey, produced by the Kilbrin Distilling Company, I would expect the liquid within to have some link to Kilbrin, especially as they say it is from the parish of Kilbrin.

Spoiler alert: Kilbrin whiskey has nothing to do with Kilbrin, apart from being ‘inspired’ by a mythical treasure buried in Kilbrin. It’s okay though, as this was a rookie error by a small firm with no background in whiskey, actually hang on I’m just checking my notes here and it would appear that the firm behind Kilbrin Whiskey is actually a subsidiary of Scots whisky giant (and owner of Tullamore DEW) Wm Grant & Sons. Well now I don’t know what to think.

The problem here isn’t really transparency per se – I genuinely don’t care where this whiskey comes from (chances are it is from Bushmills). I do start to care if I feel that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of American consumers, as there is also the contagion effect of mistrust. I don’t buy Japanese whisky anymore as I don’t want to have to turn into Hercule Poirot just to find out if the liquid was actually created in Japan, and if a couple of poorly-thought out brands burn the American consumer then we are doomed.

Yes, all Irish whiskey is Irish, so we are nowhere near the Japanese situation. But surely if place is being used as a selling point then we should consider that down the road people might want to visit that place to see where the whiskey came from? Why not just speak straight, like the fantastically blunt explanation of Blacks Whiskey and where it originated. Besides, if you are going after the average American consumer, surely people rather than places are both safer and more engaging – how many myths and legends do we have that could be exploited for a brand story? Feckin’ loads of them, all we have is batshit crazy stories about giants and mad yokes fighting huge dogs, stick them on the bottle rather than poor auld Kilbrin, a place I wouldn’t want any American wandering around in the hopes of finding a distillery. I’m not even sure they have a post office.

The good news is that even if we burn our bridges with America, at least we will have China to plunder, as Bord Bia have commissioned a report on attitudes to Irish whiskey there, and are looking for the findings in ‘a visually appealing, high-definition conference PowerPoint presentation which highlights the core insights and offers recommendations for the industry’. Wow – Powerpoint, I’d better hit pause on my Hootie and the Blowfish mp3 on my Zune, log off my dial up internet and use my landline to call 1996 because if you need to specifically ask people to use Powerpoint, you are setting a low bar. It just reminds me of the laughable LOI rebrand.

Irish whiskey bonder Louise McGuane, who has vast experience in both the US and Asia with various drinks brands, summed up what the report should say in a single tweet:

Now if only I could find a way to screenshot that tweet into a Powerpoint slide and maybe get it to spin into frame, then I could be raking in some sweet, sweet tax dollars from Bord Bia.

It wasn’t all good news for Irish whiskey this year – Brexit still poses massive uncertainty for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning whiskey scene, while I’m personally holding Brexit to account for Master Of Malt no longer shipping to Ireland. Apparently, it was always illegal for whiskey to be shipped unaccompanied into Ireland, but nobody seemed to give a damn when I brought in a few grands’ worth over the last four years. Now, with Brexit looming, there would appear to have been a clampdown. Thus, I have nowhere to go for my cheap deals – even the whiskey from my hometown was often cheaper on MoM than it is right here where it is made. If any whiskey fan out there has a solution to this mess, please HMU in the comments.

This sprawling disaster of a blog post is only an incredibly brief sliver of rumour and innuendo, and in no way representative of just how alive Irish whiskey is right now. If I could chuck in my job and spend six months doing a Barnard and visiting every distillery in Ireland, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t, so sadly you get this armchair punditry instead, in which I have managed to not mention about 90% of the big events from the year – Teeling pot still, Kilbeggan Rye, Dingle maturing like a fine wine, and the pagan science going on down in Waterford, which is part Wicker Man, part Gattaca. So here’s to 2019, 2020, 2021, and all the great whiskeys to come. As the old song goes, things can only get better.

Dunville’s, distilleries, Speyside, patience

Indo col 54:

St Malachy’s Church in Belfast is a survivor. Built in 1841 in what Sir John Betjeman once described as ‘a cheerful gothic’ style, it had its windows blown in by a German bomb during the Second World War, whilst also having the remaining windows sucked out when another bomb hit the nearby gasworks, causing a massive vacuum. Some of the windows were then filled in with concrete, which ultimately damaged the surrounding brickwork, and eventually more than 80,000 handmade bricks had to be replaced. Apart from all those woes, the church also had to deal with some especially pedantic neighbours.

St Malachy’s is home to the largest and possibly loudest bell in Belfast – its din was so great  that it started to bother the Dunville family, who owned the nearby Royal Irish Distillery. They claimed that the noise from the bell was disturbing the whiskey they had maturing in their warehouses, and managed to create enough of a headache for church bosses that they actually agreed to cover the bell in felt to help muffle the sound. Perhaps picking a fight with the church wasn’t the best idea for Dunvilles, as they went into voluntary liquidation in 1936, despite the fact that they were still in profit at the time. Many of the old Irish distilleries ended like this – brought down by a combination of bad timing, bad luck and the misfortune of having the canniest rivals they possibly could – the Scots. For almost a century, our Celtic neighbours have ruled the whisky world, and now we are in resurgence we have a lot of old scores to settle.

By now you will have heard that there is a whiskey boom here. All over the country distilleries are popping up, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in the world, and we are screaming back into the consciousness of drinkers like a rocket from the crypt. People are starting to talk about whiskey tourism, with industry body the Irish Whiskey Association even going so far as to say that they envision Ireland being a world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. This is, of course, wonderful; everyone likes good news, especially when it involves the Irish doing well. However, it may take a little longer than 12 years to beat the Scots at whisky tourism, and all we have to do to realise this is to look across the Straits of Moyle to our old distilling rivals.

Scotland has two major whisky festivals – Feis Ile on the island of Islay, the location where Irish monks made the terrible mistake of teaching the Scots how to distill, and the Spirit Of Speyside, held in the true whisky heartland above the Cairngorm mountain range. While Islay has fewer than ten distilleries, Speyside has more than 50, many of them household names – The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenfiddich being some of the best known. They are the brands that permeate the consciousness of the average consumer. They have been in existence for up to a century or more, and have made their way into popular culture via cinema, art, and music. During the Speyside festival these titans of whisky and dozens more throw open their doors to their adoring public, and thousands flock from all over the UK, the US and Europe to be there. This, in a nutshell, is whisky tourism – people going to a place purely for the whisky, a sacred pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their favourite drink. It takes generations for a whisky brand to build up this sort of fanbase, because whisky is all about time. It takes three years for spirit to age in a cask before it can legally be called whiskey, but it takes far longer to become an icon. A ten year old single malt is considered to be entry level, and you will need considerably older stock than that to lure in significant numbers of tourists.

So this is where we are lacking – our new distilleries are going to be waiting for a decade or more before their stock starts to really make an impact on the global whiskey scene. Combine this with the fact that, outside of Dublin, we really don’t have any clusters of distilleries like they do in Speyside or Islay, where fans can walk, cycle, or simply stagger from distillery to distillery. If whiskey tourism is to work in Ireland, it will need more than just distillery visits, and that’s where we can learn from the Speyside festival.

I’ve been to the festival twice, in 2015 and this year, and it is an excellent illustration of how whisky tourism should work. Distillery visits and the drink itself may be the bedrock, but the festival is more about Scottish culture than anything. There were nature walks, ceilidhs, formal dances, incredible food, and treks into the mountains on amphibian Argocats. I went to talks on geology, a water tasting session, a distillery tour where we munched on malted barley, and more fine food than I should have eaten. There was breathtaking scenery, beautiful architecture, wonderful people and memories that will last a lifetime. This wasn’t a booze cruise – it was about losing yourself in heritage, history and tradition (whilst drinking some of the world’s greatest single malts, obviously).

We may not have mature distilleries that hark back two centuries, but we have all the other elements ready to go. In fact, Alan Winchester, the legendary master distiller of The Glenlivet – the person who told me about Dunvilles versus the bell of St Malachy’s – was singing the praises of the startling beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way, a route that is now peppered with whiskey tourism attractions. Seeing what the Spirit Of Speyside has to offer is a lesson in how whisky tourism should be done – rather than claiming we are going to beat the Scots, we should be learning from them and working with them. If a tourist is coming from Canada to visit Scottish distilleries, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump to Ireland, where whisky fans can visit iconic distilleries like Bushmills and relative newcomers like the innovative Echlinville Distillery, who resurrected the old Dunville brands, rebuilding a link to our lost distilling heritage.

Irish whiskey’s return to the world stage will be as much about respect as it is about sales and economics – the great bell of St Malachy’s still rings three times a day, a reminder that when it comes to spirit matters – both liquid and divine – faith, devotion and a decent measure of humility are key to salvation.

Method Man

Midleton Distillery Master Of Science Dave Quinn in the lab. 

Science is something of a dirty word in the whiskey business. Consider the life and work of Aeneas Coffey. After risking life and limb as a gauger, he applied all he knew about distilling (and a lot of what Scots inventor Robert Stein knew) to a new type of still. It was cleaner and more efficient, and was rejected wholesale by the distillers here. The Scots, however, were more receptive to his more efficient and cost-effective invention, and the rest is history.

In Ireland, Coffey’s still was seen as an affront to whiskey, making silent spirit that had no tongue to speak from whence it came – or, to put it another way, it was so pure that you supposedly had no idea what was in it.

An ad for a Cork distillery rejecting column stills and all their works.

To this day, the spirit produced by the Coffey still is seen by whiskey drinkers as the child of a lesser god, rather than the result of a brilliant invention. Of course, its purity does give it a lighter flavour profile in comparison to single malt or the spicy mixed mash of pot still whiskey, but it’s still an example of how the scientific advancement of distilling is not always welcome.

Modern ‘advancements’ haven’t helped the average whiskey drinker change their quasi-Luddite minds – accelerated aging techniques, which range from spirit mixed with wood pellets, to ultrasound used on barrels, to the oldschool sherry hack of paxarette, are really just ways of cheating time. And time, as any human being will tell you, cannot be cheated.

But what is it that makes a whiskey great, beyond any subjective preferences, beyond any labels or marketing? What is the secret to a great whiskey? 

Dave Quinn in the Irish Whiskey Academy during the Method & Madness press trip to Midleton.

If you wanted to ask someone, Dave Quinn is a good person to start with. He was part of that first generation of distillers who focussed on the idea of whiskey as a molecular event that needed to be explored – people who saw distilling as a science as much as an art.

From Longford, he went to college in Galway where he studied biochemistry and then biotechnology. Moving to Cork he started working with Irish Distillers in the 1980s, before transferring to Bushmills – then owned by IDL – in 1996, before transferring back to Midleton in 2002, where he is now their Master Of Science. But what exactly is the science of whiskey?

“Science is just a way of saying we are trying to find a better way of understanding what’s happening right down at the molecular level – understanding the link between what we describe as flavour and taste, and what are the congeners, what are the flavour compounds that actually contribute to that, to what you perceive as taste, flavour, aroma, and we have a certain level of understanding of that but not a complete one by any manner or means,” he says.

Of course, making whiskey isn’t a one step affair – and parts of the process are easier to understand than others, particularly those at the front end.

“It’s easier to understand the biochemistry of brewing and yeast fermentation, what happens to the yeast, the compounds it produces. Where things start to get a bit more tricky is when we get into wood maturation. We have an understanding of some of the wood compounds that contribute but there is a lot of other wood compounds that we don’t fully understand or know about.”

Dave Quinn and Dagmara Dabrowska in a promo image for the Method & Madness range. 

But long before the spirit comes into contact with wood, Quinn and his colleague Dr Dagmara Dabrowska have a way of studying distilling. Squirrelled away within the Midleton campus is a pilot plant – effectively a fully functioning scale model of the distillery, in the style of Derek Zoolander’s school for ants. Initially created as part of their proposed energy saving programme, it began life as a 1/2000th version of the grain columns, and it is here that much of their work takes place.

“We have a pilot plant up there, where we have small pot stills and a column still so we can work on them there without even coming down here to the microdistillery. The pilot plant is very much more … automated isn’t the right word, but with more places where we can take samples and monitor a lot of the variables like temperature and pressure. With the energy saving programme we did a lot of that work in the pilot plant.”

The energy saving was one of the most impressive feats of an already impressive operation in Midleton. The pilot plant was commissioned to conduct R&D into the proposals, which saw them shave 20% off their energy use. Dr Dabrowska is credited with much of the success of that project. As Head of Analytical and Technical Development, she helped find new ways to transfer energy between the columns – a piece of equipment that, Aeneas Coffey would be delighted to know, produces more spirit than any other part of Midleton distillery. Their colossal grain output was finally celebrated with the recent release of both the 31-year-old and 11-year-old single grain bottlings, the distillery’s first under their own name (the Irish Whiskey Society released a Midleton grain bottling two years ago).

Launched under the Method & Madness incubator brand – a space for IDL to experiment with their output – the grain whiskeys were a striking departure from the heritage pot-still brands like Redbreast and Yellow Spot to a more modern aesthetic and an embracing of science. But whiskey is all science, despite what the marketing department might tell you. The modern distillery tries to site itself in a romantic pastoral dreamscape, where the distiller hand operates all aspects and divines the perfect cut using only his senses. The truth is rather different. Modern distilleries have more in common with pharma plants than the sort of thatched-cottage scenes on their labels. Distillers are – and always have been – scientists. But it is in the collision between the quantifiable perfection of science and the beautiful chaos of human nature that some of the most interesting interactions take place, as Quinn points out.

“For example, somebody is doing a sensory evaluation trying to use normal everyday words to describe the flavour that they are seeing or feeling, to try and take that –  say somebody saying I get a nice hint of floral note, a bit of rose petal and a bit of leather, and cigar tobacco in the background – there is no way that you could say well that is due to ABCD or E, as different people will have different terminology and different language to describe what they perceive as flavour.

“So one of the things we do in our sensory science lab is to try and standardise the language a little bit so that if somebody does say leather or cereal notes or whatever, we try and ensure that everyone uses the same language to describe that particular attribute in the whiskey. And then we might try and see if we can determine what is causing or what is contributing to that.”

But while the pilot plant and sensory science lab may be akin to the Large Hadron Collider, there is no one illusive God Particle that can create a particular flavour.

“Invariably it is not just a single congener – it could be the effect of multiple congeners coming together to give you a single sensory effect. You have some compounds that on their own … – you find a single compound and put it into neutral alcohol and increase its concentration so you get to a point where you could actually perceive it as an aroma , and then if you go below that minimum level and you don’t get it then that is deemed the flavour threshold – in other words, you have some compounds that have very high flavour threshold, in other words you need a lot of them for you to perceive it.

“But then some are very low flavour thresholds, levels that you can barely measure, but you can still pick it up on the nose. And it is those compounds that are the key ones in terms of bridging that gap between identifying the sensory act of compounds and identifying them and relating them to a particular character.

“What can happen is that you can get small individual compounds that might be below the flavour threshold; in other words, theoretically you should not be able to pick them up. But there’s a few of them that are sometimes present together that can almost act synergistically so that individually you wouldn’t be able to detect them but when they are combined together they give you a flavour and perception. And then you are getting into an area that can be very difficult to fully explore.”

That ‘area’ is us. Our perceptions are based on a combination of nature – the senses we are born with – and nurture – the tastes we develop as we grow, which are impacted on by the culture and environment around us.

“Different people will have different preferences, different likes, even different sensitivities to flavors so there will  be some elements of flavour that some people will pick up readily and other people cannot perceive them at all.”

Quinn’s work with Irish Distillers is less about stripping the soul from whiskey than it is about understanding how to make the best whiskey possible. It may seem like a eugenics programme, where error and, thus, personality, are eliminated under the jackbooted march of lab technicians in white coats, ruthlessly striving for a dystopian purity. In reality, it is what science always aims to be – about doing better.

“We are trying to understand distilling at a molecular level. The key is – the more you can understand, the more you can make informed decisions about what influences the taste or the character of whiskey. But it is also about what aspects don’t affect it. If you don’t have some level of understanding then you can’t really go and do the same distillation with confidence. You can only do this if you have a good understanding of the technical, science element of what you’re doing, because if you’re just relying on old wives tales and superstitions about not changing anything in the distillery, then you will never be able to develop something unique and interesting.”

Quinn knows a thing or two about doing unique things, given that, along with Peter Morehead, he was one of the chief drivers of the runaway success that is Jameson Caskmates, inspired by a spirit of innovation, experimentation and adventure.

But while the Method & Madness brand has the space for more mad-scientist style experimentation with wood and distillate styles, in both the main distillery and micro distillery, part of Quinn’s work is to ensure that as the Irish whiskey category explodes worldwide, a consistent standard is maintained, not just of quality but also of flavour profile. Distillers used to be full of superstition, where any change to the process – even the cleaning of cobwebs in the stillhouse – was deemed to be bad luck in case it affected the spirit, a culture of what a scientist might refer to as ‘poppycock’.

“You can keep doing the same thing over and over again but if you have a better understanding of what the fundamentals are then you have a much better opportunity of directing your research and your experiments in a path you know will change the spirits, and you can say ‘let’s try it’ and know more or less what the outcome is going to be. You go from a chancing-your-arm, needle-in-a-haystack approach to having a far more focussed approach.”

The distillery in Midleton is one of the most impressive, modern facilities in the world, and it has shown that you can be the biggest and also be the best. While the public facing side may be one of heritage and tradition, scientists like Dave Quinn, Dagmara Dabrowska and the rest of the Masters and their apprentices have shown that they are getting ever closer to unlocking the secrets of a perfect dram and entering a brave new world of truly great whiskeys.

  • Footnote: There is an excellent interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation in the Engineering Journal, which you can read here. It goes into some depth on the energy saving programme. There is also a recent presentation by Dr Dabrowska which you can read here, which goes into her work on the column stills. 

The Fountainhead

Christian Davis, Editor of Drinks International, Billy Leighton, Head Blender for Irish Distillers, Brian Nation, Head Distiller at Irish Distillers and Justin Smith, Publisher of Drinks International.

I’m not sure that many people in Midleton are aware that one of the world’s most significant distilleries lies just outside the town. It sits there on the skyline, silently creating and maintaining the bulk of the world supply of Irish whiskey.

Of course, the local lack of understanding isn’t helped by the fact that it still gives Bow Street as the address on the bottle – I once got into a heated argument with a family member from the big smoke who would not believe that they no longer make Jameson in Dublin. ‘But it says it on the bottle’ he kept telling me. But the distillery is here in east Cork, just over my left shoulder as I write this. It gives me an immense sense of pride to be from Midleton – effectively, the home of Irish whiskey for several decades. And, of course, there is always that local pride to see them celebrated on the world stage, which they have been once again:

Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard has been named Producer of the Year at this year’s prestigious International Spirits Challenge (ISC), topping the ‘World Whiskies’ group that not only encompasses the Irish Whiskey category but also all other world whiskies, showcasing the continued prowess of Ireland’s leading whiskey producer.

Irish Distillers picked up the accolade at an ISC award ceremony, held at the Honourable Artillery Company in Central London on July 6th.

Speaking at the event, Brian Nation, Irish Distillers Head Distiller, commented: “This prestigious award is testament to the dedication and commitment of the passionate craftspeople at the Midleton Distillery; past and present. It is a huge honour to be part of a team that is collectively recognised as producer of the year for all world whiskies, and a fantastic motivation to continue crafting our award-winning products with the utmost care and consistency.”

Now in its 21st year, the ISC is one of the world’s most influential competitions in promoting outstanding quality spirits. The competition is founded on a rigorous and independent judging process, and receives more than 1,300 entries from nearly 70 countries worldwide.

One of the things that industry people will tell you is that it isn’t the scale of the Midleton operation that is most impressive about it, but rather the versatility – as one master distiller in Scotland put it to me ‘it’s not how much they can create, it’s what they can do – that’s what is so remarkable’.

In short, Midleton distillery can make a lot of whiskey, but they can also make a lot of whiskeys – they can remix and rewrite to create a vast array of spirit styles long before they even start thinking about wood. A good example of this diversity is in the list of expressions that won medals at the ISC this year:

  •         Jameson Black Barrel (Gold)
  •         Jameson 18 Year Old (Gold)
  •         Jameson Bold (Gold)
  •         Jameson Round (Gold)
  •         Redbreast 12 Year Old (Gold)
  •         Yellow Spot (Gold)
  •         Powers John’s Lane Release (Gold)
  •         Jameson Original (Silver)
  •         Jameson Signature (Silver)
  •         Jameson Caskmates (Silver)
  •         Jameson Crested (Silver)
  •         Jameson Lively (Silver)
  •         Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength (Silver)
  •         Redbreast 15 Year Old (Silver)
  •         Redbreast 21 Year Old (Silver)
  •         Green Spot (Silver)

IDL recently rebranded a few of the above into a more unified style, something that reflects the changing times here: For years we had a few distilleries trying to look like several – and now there are several distilleries here it is time for the big producers to circle the wagons and place some of their brands under one flag.

As someone who loves the variety of IDL’s output, I’m not wild about the idea. I can see the logic behind it, but to see a cult classic like Crested 10, with its old fashioned styling and inaccurate name (it’s not ten years old) being rebranded into a sort of rugby jersey-looking yoke is just depressing. But if it was a case of rebrand or retire – which it possibly was, given Crested’s lack of profile – then I guess I can suck it up.  

I had hoped to get this garbage written without mentioning millennials, but since this rebrand is most likely aimed squarely at them, I’m going to. The Makers’ and Deconstructed series are effectively a painting-by-numbers introduction to whiskey, taking drinkers on those first few tentative steps from blends down the rabbit hole to personalised Glencairns, tweed waistcoats and terrible puns on the word ‘dram’. Dramnation awaits you all!

But this re-positioning makes sense – given the huge boom in Irish whiskey, you want to bring as many people into the fold as possible, even if it is with a trio of whiskeys which sound like a tragic personal ad – ‘lively, round and bold’ – or another trio of whiskeys which sound like like something out of Roger Melly’s Profanisaurus (Blender’s Dog being a particular offender in this regard).

As for new expressions, who knows – but this interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation mentions Gan Eagla, which is the Irish language version of the Jameson family slogan, sine metu; without fear. It might as well mean ‘without age statement’ since that seems to be the industry trend – churn out as many NAS titles as your marketing team can dream up and keep charging premium rates for them.

But we live in hope: I’d love to see a Red Spot (they still have the trademark, there’s still a chance!), or more of the creativity that gave us Dair Ghaelach, or anything with a little bit more depth, and a few more years on it. I am very, very far from being any sort of whiskey expert, geek or even a proper blogger (30,000 posts on here, a couple of hundred on whiskey), but I’d like to see less NAS, and more quality, aged whiskeys coming from my hometown. I know they have it – when I look out the window all I can see is acres of warehouses, stacked to the rafters with barrels just waiting to be emptied down my gullet.

But until that glorious day, let’s just all agree that IDL are getting it mostly right as long as they don’t resurrect Kiskadee rum:



As a species, we have become completely estranged from what we consume. Over the last few centuries we have transitioned from living on locally grown, native foods to barely being able to tell what we are eating, where it came from and what has been done to it. The quote that inspired William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch hold a lesson for us – it suggested a frozen moment when every person truly saw what was on the end of every fork for what it was. Burroughs was suggesting a moment of existential dread, but he might as well have been talking about what we eat and drink – we currently have no clue what is on the end of every fork, and, perhaps even more so, what is at the bottom of every glass.

The whiskey world is awash with the smoke and mirrors of marketing – terms like artisan, small batch, craft; they mean absolutely nothing, yet are attached to each new brand as though they are reinventing the wheel. All over Ireland and the UK there are brands that are making misleading and often false claims about what they are, who made it and where. All of this is seen as simply being part of ‘the game’ – a comfortable untruth that most of the industry goes along with. However, there is one man who has been battling for more than a decade in his attempts to reconnect us with the origins of our spirit.

Mark Reynier was a third generation wine merchant on a cycling holiday in Scotland when he decided to visit the home of one of his favourite whiskies – Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay. Reynier cycled up to the gates of the distillery, only to find them locked with a sign reading ‘plant closed – no visitors!’

Spotting a security guard patrolling the yard, Reynier waved to him and asked if they could have a look around. The guard’s reply was a succinct ‘fuck off’. And off Reynier did fuck – but when he returned, he came with investors, capital, the keys to the plant and a dream to bring the distillery back to life using 200-year-old methods. Enlisting the help of local distilling legend Jim McEwan, he created one of the most iconic whisky brands of the modern era – a spirit born of centuries old distilling methods, yet fresh, brash, brave and bold.

However, the most revolutionary ethos of Bruichladdich was its dedication to terroir – a term previously used mostly in wine circles, meaning the microclimate that leads to differing flavour profiles of different vineyards. Reynier experimented wildly with Bruichladdich, but it was his celebration of the humble barley grain and the land that bore it that was the most memorable of all.

Bruichladdich’s legend grew and grew, and eventually the fiercely independent brand was sold to drinks giant Remy Cointreau. But, in typically contradictory fashion, Reynier voted against the sale – even though it made him a wealthy man. He wasn’t ready to sell, he said at the time; he still had more to do, more to give the distilling world. Shortly after the sale he disappeared, like Kaiser Soze, with no one knowing if the whisky world had seen the last of him. That he reappeared some time later was not the big shock; it was rather, where he reappeared that caused the most surprise.

Photochrom of Waterford in 1900 via the Library Of Congress.

Nestled on the south-east coast of Ireland, Waterford is the country’s oldest city.  A compact and bijou urban space situated above the confluence of the Three Sisters, it is a city of outsiders: Settled by the vikings in 932AD, its name is derived from the Nordic ‘Vadrarfjordr’ – the fjord of the rams, a fitting name given that this city is home to its own indigenous herd of feral goats. The goats do not go back that far, but rather came with the Huguenots three centuries ago, along with the city’s legendary Blaa, a type of doughy roll. The goats live on Bilberry Rock, a high outcrop overlooking the city, and right beneath their hooves lies Mark Reynier’s new project; Waterford Distillery.

Reynier bought the old Waterford Guinness brewery from Diageo for a sum that is rumoured to be considerably smaller than the 40 million it was worth. What he got for his money was a recently renovated brewery, which he then converted into a distilling powerhouse in a few short months, rehiring some of the staff who had been laid off by Diageo. On his Twitter he posted regular updates from the redevelopment, and proved that his success with Bruichladdich had not lessened his ability to be an uber enfant terrible.  In interviews he bemoaned the lack of ‘mindfuckery’ in Irish whiskey, slammed the monopolies by massive firms, and generally rattled cages and ruffled feathers in a scene that was previously rather chummy. Just as he did on Islay, Reynier revelled in his outsider status – like Camus’s anti-hero Meursault, he came across as a man who had enough of the lies, the deceit and the conceits. But beneath all the bluster, there was a very serious plan being put in place.

As the plant was being re-engineered, Reynier was out walking through fields and talking to farmers about grains, soils, yields and dreams. He put in place a network of farms along the east coast who would supply him with barley for his spirit, taking his twin ethos of terroir and provenance to an almost forensic level. But which came first – the desire to make whiskey in Ireland, or the lure of the deal of the century?

“Ireland,” he says immediately; “and I’m enjoying every minute of it here. It was two things that brought me – one was an old boy at Bruichladdich, Duncan McGillivary. I can vividly remember him sitting on a wall on a sunny afternoon, saying that the best barley he ever saw in his career – and he had been there for 35 years – came from Waterford port. And it always stuck in my mind. Of course, here you are two hundred miles nearer the equator than Islay – Cambridge is on the same latitude. The climate is milder, so barley was the big draw.

“Scotland, whisky-wise, I had been there, seen it, done it. So there was a chance to make a mark in Ireland, because the whisky industry seems to me to be just all over the place. So all that was intriguing and seductive – and at least it’s not like the 110 major distilleries in Scotland.

“Finally, of course, it was to do with this extraordinary place being available. It took us just a year and four days to get going – it would take three years at least to set up a distillery from scratch. But I came here for the barley primarily.”

And as for the culture shock of moving to Ireland, he was well prepared: “Having dragged my wife and son from Sussex up to Bruichladdich, on the remote, wild and windy Hebridean island of Islay –  a Gaelic island – not Scottish, Gaelic – that was pretty difficult; an extreme contrast.  The parameters which define oneself, the habitat, the ecosystem, friends – they all go out the window; we basically said goodbye to our previous life.  

“The way I explained it once was, it is a bit like you have been invited as the star guest appearance on Eastenders, and you turn up on set, but you have never watched Eastenders, you have no idea who’s having sex with who; who was murdered, beaten up or shunned, who is cohabiting, or has those ‘extended family’ connections with who, because you have never seen the previous episodes, let alone the last series. It’s of course one-sided because everyone knows everything about you.

“And it’s not just a few months but hundreds of years. One time, I wanted something delivered to my house, and it never got delivered and I couldn’t understand why. It turned out that the delivery guy, his grandfather had once an argument with the person who owned the track to my house, and he wouldn’t travel down it. And this was a hundred years later. I still have a house there in Islay and I love being there, we all do.

“But one of the best things about here is that I have had so much fun with these guys, where one can just talk and joke without fear of offence. And that has been a really rewarding experience. We started here implementing what we wanted to do, right from day one, with an enthusiasm, open-mindedness and alacrity.”

Reynier has now started distilling individual spirit from individual farms, and can track the differences accordingly; in a scene filled with obfustication and untruths, he is now in the unique position of being able to say ‘this is the field, this is the grain, and this is the spirit they created’.

Lisa Ryan, head brewer at Waterford Distillery, with a sample of barley from the farm of Leonard Ashmore.

To emphasise the focus on barley, Waterford Distillery has no master distiller – but it does have a master brewer. Lisa Ryan was one of the staff laid off by Diageo when the brewery closed, and her rehiring meant Reynier brought in someone not just with experience of high-end brewing, but who would be a system native; there would be no learning the ropes, just down to work from day one. Reynier says his structure is a more realistic, practical arrangement: “We have a distillery manager, head brewer, chief engineer and head distiller. Each relies on the other – buildings, barley, machines, spirit – and the responsibilities are equally divided.”

The plant had been used by Diageo to create the concentrate from which overseas Guinness is made, so it obviously needed some adjustments – the largest of those adjustments being the acquisition of stills. But this was another piece of the puzzle that slotted into place. When Reynier was in his early days with Bruichladdich, a friend of his known as Demolition Dave (a slight misnomer as he is now one of the investors behind Waterford Distillery) tipped him off about something special lurking within the soon-to-be-levelled Dumbarton grain distillery.

Secreted away inside this massive industrial grain-distilling operation were two small pot stills – known as the Inverleven stills. Reynier saw an opportunity, bought the stills and shipped them to Islay, where he intended to use them to revamp and restart Port Charlotte distillery, close to Bruichladdich. They never made it there, but one did adorn the front garden of Bruichladdich – with a pair of wellie boots sticking out the top. So when he bought Waterford, he knew where to get two stills to skip the potential three-year wait for Forsyths of Rothes – the Rolls Royce of still makers – to create new ones. Forsyths did play a hand, upgrading and mending the stills, and then they were installed, and brought to life, in the south east of Ireland, all ready to make a spirit that reflected their design – elegant yet full-bodied, delicate yet strong.

The Inverleven stills in situ in Waterford.

“Every distiller likes to have their own-designed stills, it’s the personal flourish of any new distillery, but we know what these stills can do – we know what the style will be  we can determine what goes in, of course, how the stills are run, but the weight of the spirit is determined by that still shape.

“If you have very tall, narrow-necked stills, you will produce  a very floral, elegant spirit. If you have very short, dumpy stills you will have a heavy, oily spirit – and there is nothing you can do about it. Laphroaig, for example, can never ever ever produce a light, floral spirit because they have short, dumpy stills. You can’t change it. That is how it’s going to be. We know that these Inverleven stills  are going to produce a floral spirit, because of their shape. So then the question is – how are you going to run them? And we have the facilities here to produce very, very good-quality wort and wash, clinically the best – you can’t do anything better. So then it is a question of how slowly we run those stills, and because we have all this space and the control we can run everything exactly as we please.”

That space may be getting a little smaller, as there are plans to order four more stills from Forsyths over the next five years. Clearly, this is not a short-term venture.

The main gates; the old brewery is on left, the new distillery on right.

What strikes you first about Waterford Distillery is the scale of it – on approach it is dwarfed by the hulking, quartz-riddled presence of Bilberry Rock. But once you get close, you begin to grasp just how massive it is. A modern, elliptical frontage houses much of the current operation, while to the rear is an old brewery, crying out to be transformed into a visitor’s centre.

The inside of the old brewery.

Beyond is the Barley Cathedral, where the grain from each farm, each field has their own storage space. This allows Waterford to create a single field, single farm, single cask, single distillery, single malt. You could probably throw ‘single master brewer’ in there too, given that one of the farmers supplying them is Lisa Ryan’s father. And as they have the capability to propagate their own yeast, you might as well throw in ‘single single-celled fungus’. Although that might not look so appealing on the label.

Along with all those capabilities, they also have an evaporator – with which they can make single grain spirit. So is he going to?


Definitely not?

“No. Single malt is what I want to do – single malt, single malt, single malt.”

And no pot still whiskey, or as he calls it, mixed-mash: “Why would you want to mix the mash, when you’ve got the greatest barley in the world? Why on earth do you want to compromise it?”

Maybe as a nod to Ireland, or even just as a cash-in, I suggest.

“Who says it’s a nod to Ireland?”

Isn’t it an Irish tradition, a traditional style of whiskey made here?

“A tradition which they also use in Canada, America, and all over the world. So there is nothing unique about it at all. The fact that Pernod say this style of whiskey ‘is’ Ireland, is purely for their marketing, they want to own it because they have most of it. There’s no real evidence that this is the definitive Irish style, we know that people were making single malt back in the 19th Century too.  Besides, the terminology is a nonsense; internationally, what does “pot still” mean to a whisky consumer? It means an inanimate, dumpy copper vessel used for distilling whisky rather than a mix of malted and cheaper, unmalted barley with some maize or rye bunged in.

“But it’s an intellectual proposition – why do you want to make a dumbed-down version? Why?”

So that is how he sees pot still whiskey – a dumbed-down single malt?

“Single malt is the most complex spirit in the world, flavour compound wise. If you drink a blended whiskey, all that flavour you get isn’t the grain whiskey, the grain is there to stretch the flavour. Analytically, we know that single malt is the most complex spirit. It is the reason why kids, when they drink spirits when their parents are away when they are 16 and get hammered, they never touch whiskey ever again. They will drink vodka again; they drink cognac again; they drink calvados again; but they won’t touch whiskey because the flavour – their brain remembers it, because there was so much of it. You don’t see winos hoovering down single malt whiskey – or whiskey. You see them hoovering down vodka.”

So if he had been offered a third still for free, so he could triple distill – again, in the Irish style – would he have taken it?

“No, no, but you can triple distill with two stills too. We might do a bit for fun. But by distilling up to 80% rather than 70% you are just losing more body and  flavour. We triple-distilled a bit at Bruichladdich and several Scottish malts are triple-distilled. Anyone can do it.

“In Ireland you have that habit of beer and chaser – that’s how whiskey was enjoyed – so the more straight-forward, accessible it was, the better. Perhaps the lowland Scottish distilleries got the custom of triple distillation from 19-century Irish immigrants? Whereas you don’t see people in pubs drinking single malt, even in Scotland – unless they’re tourists. It is a more elite, expensive thing. But it used to be primarily a component of blends. Very few people back then drank it as a single malt and if they did it was as new spirit straight off the still.”

So the evaporator may not be used for single grain; it will be used another way – to reduce the pot ale for shipping as pig feed. Less water in it means less weight, ergo less cost.

“We have a fancy vacuum-operated column still called a Sigmatec. I didn’t really know at the time I bought the place what it was. Guinness used it to de-alcoholise – or strip – stout. Talking with engineers I asked if it could do the reverse and they said yes. With a few tweaks and adjustments, some re-piping, and voila: a state-of-the-art column still. But my interests don’t lie there. This project is intellectually and financially focused on single malt. However, it’s a reassuring back-up to have up your sleeve.”

Likewise there will be no white spirits, and definitely no selling sourced whiskey under his own branding, a tactic used by the majority of new distilleries in Ireland to generate revenue. However, it is also a practise that has been abused, with some independent bottlers playing fast and loose with their marketing material, and striving to create the illusion that they distilled the product themselves.

“Well this is Ireland’s big problem. And it isn’t going to solve itself, I fear. There isn’t the interest or the will within the industry it seems to me to do anything about it. There isn’t the money to enforce regulations, even ones for the common good, because at present you have only Pernod Ricard, Jose Cuervo, William Grant and  that’s it. The IWA (Irish Whiskey Association) isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the Scotch Whisky Association (which incidentally  represents the whole spirits industry, not just Scotch). I don’t see it having the mandate or the power to bring much-need  discipline to labels, presentations, marketing material and claims, that will build the much-needed credibility of the Irish whisky sector.

“Abroad, if you ask whisky drinkers about Irish whiskey I’m afraid you’ll find there is not a great deal of trust. That confidence has to be earned.  Sure there is a huge enthusiasm now in the Irish whiskey sector, but there is also perhaps, shall we say, a certain naivety, too. In the absence of clearly defined, acceptable practices, there are some bottlers that play fast and loose if not with the actual rules (there aren’t yet many) but certainly the spirit of them.

“If you go to the duty free at Dublin Airport and they have more than 100 Irish whiskeys, but they are from just three distilleries, but you’d swear blind with all the master distillers listed on those labels there were at least fifty distilleries producing all that hooch.

“But I’m a libertarian at heart. Look – to a degree I can understand all this wild-west approach, after all I used to be an independent bottler myself once.  Ours is a heads-down, get on with it no nonsense operation and sod ‘em all.

“In Scotland, an authoritative SWA provides the necessary guidelines to protect the reputation which every one for the greater good follows. It isn’t onerous or police state stuff; it is common sense. I certainly had my run-ins with them when we didn’t see eye to eye. But here  it is a wee bit more freestyle, more individualistic shall we say, and I don’t really see it changing any time soon.  But it needs to.

“I can already hear the “coming over here telling us what to do” complaints, but there is a truly great opportunity for Irish whiskey. A reset button has been pushed. These are exciting times.  But equally a regulatory framework needs to be constructed too, to guide, to keep us all on the straight and narrow.  It isn’t onerous; it’s not finicky; it ain’t Big Brother. It is for the greater glory of Irish whiskey.

“Some of the marketing spin is mere over-exuberance, some of it is deliberately disingenuous, and some of it is naivety. Some of it is outright fraudulent. But I don’t see anybody having either the will, the foresight, the authority or the money to challenge it. That’s why I am focussed on what we are doing here, doing my own thing.”

But given that Ireland is in a ‘wild west’ state – being as it is in a state of rapid rebirth and expansion, a new frontier for this generation – Reynier has some suggestions on what a new sheriff might look like.

“The Irish Government should say ‘right, we shouldn’t get involved, because we are short-term politicians, here today, gone tomorrow; equally, the industry should not be involved because they have got interests that are non compatible – remember the banks and self-regulation? – but we should do what France does with Champagne; create an apolitical body in between the industry and the politicians which is a civil servant-run to represent the long-term interests of Ireland and not powerful industry players nor biddable politicians’.

“It says ‘Product of Ireland’ and “Irish Whiskey” on the label, so somebody should be representing Ireland’s interests.

“This council would agree with  the Irish Whiskey Association with a set of guidelines and procedure – the SWA has it all already – which should be applied to the whole industry, It is important to get this sort of thing sorted now it will be much harder to retrofit once the horse has bolted.”

Given the startling quality of his barley network, it comes as no surprise that his wood policy is equally ambitious – and just as honest.

“We don’t need to experiment with casks, I know exactly what is needed. We have the same policy for every farm, so again it is experience – I know what works. At Bruichladdich we had to do a lot of remedial work because when we first started we couldn’t afford good oak and our accountant undervalued the influence of the oak, or rather good-quality oak, and if you haven’t got the money to buy the barley then you haven’t got the money to buy good oak – it’s an industry-wide issue. Wood is the first thing that gets cut from a struggling  budget. And of course wood values in recent years has doubled. The importance of good quality oak is now more important than ever.”

Important – yet expensive, and across the industry there are plenty of ‘innovations’ in the area of wood that no one dares talk about: “Ultrasound, music, heat, oak essence, de-charr, re-charr, tannin injection – all sorts of remedial shortcuts are available – and caramel of course.”

You can assume he isn’t going down that route: “Certainly not! So we set this company up with a very healthy budget for wood – almost the same as the barley. Now if you go back a few years ago, wood represented 10% of production costs, it is more than 40% for us, and I defy you to find anybody in the whole whiskey industry that has that budget ratio. I know from experience there is no shortcut for great quality raw ingredients and time. And that includes the wood.

“We are investing this huge sum because I know that if you are going unplugged, making natural whiskey, then there are no shortcuts – you’ve got to have good quality wood. We are making an artisanal, natural product, hence we have total traceability, beyond parallel, to prove everything we do. There is no compromise: What we say is what we do. We mean it.”

But all this dedication to the product is an added expense: “Of course it is. But by the time it gets into bottle, in five or ten years time, it is a relatively small amount; it has cashflow repercussions now, but by the time we get to market it will not make a difference in the bigger scheme of things.”

Looking into the future brings up the subject of just how many distilleries Ireland can take before it hits full capacity – clearly the full number touted by the IWA will not make it to production, many were pipe dreams that are already falling by the wayside. But there are currently roughly 20 either operational or getting there. So how many is too many? How many more can one island take?

“No more, in fact there are too many. There will be tears before bedtime. Some people optimistically think ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to have a distillery’ but the cheap bit is building it, the expensive bit is running it, and the even-more expensive bit is bringing it to market. That’s where there will be a big reckoning: I wonder if the marketplace is big enough to handle not just Ireland’s start-ups but more from the US, the UK and other countries too.”

For anyone interested in the highs and lows of starting a distillery, they can look no further than Reynier’s Twitter feed. With typically caustic honesty, it presents the failures alongside the successes; if equipment broke during the refit, it was tweeted, along with information about disappointing yields from some grain, disagreements between head brewer and distillery manager over the characteristics of new-make spirit – all there for the world to see. His messages are the antithesis of the sanitised, corporate message from most distillers.

“Well you can’t separate the good from the bad, when things go right they go right, and then sometimes they don’t. For example, we were tasting some new spirits the others day, and some of them were good, some were very good, and some were a bit dull – well that’s fine and that is out there in the world.

“If you’re going unplugged  – I can’t see how you can just go a little bit unplugged; you either are or you are not. Everything I have ever done has been unplugged – whether it was in the wine industry or Bruichladdich, so I think philosophically it is where I am happy at.

“I also think that globally there is an anti ‘big food, big drink’ thing going on; people have got too bored. You go out the door here to a pub and there is no-one in there, and you have no choice; either a stout or a lager, and you have to ask – why bother, if they are all selling the same thing, the same way? In the old days it was the craic that got the people in, but there is nobody in the pubs now.”

And just as the Irish pub has been struggling against a generational shift and the decline it has wrought, distillers lament the duty laws here, claiming they are crippling the industry. Not so, says Reynier: “It is higher than Scotland but it is the same for everybody – whether it is gin, vodka, poitín, it is the same. So you are only in a comparative field. It is what always makes me laugh every time there is a budget the SWA go on about duty and stuff and you think ‘well hang on a second, 90% of it is exported, so nobody pays duty on that at all’.”

Mark Reynier is extraordinary company, a complex spirit full of seemingly contradictory elements – profound yet profane, combative yet charming, witty and deadly serious all at once. He comes across as a man utterly frustrated with the spirits world whilst still passionately in love with it. Throughout the couple of hours I spent with him, he did not sit down once; he paced the room, gesticulating as he made his points, constantly moving, forever restless.

Mark Gillespie describes the maverick Texan distiller Chip Tate as being the Steve Jobs of the distilling world. If that is the case, then Mark Reynier is that world’s Stanley Kubrick; an auteur who refuses to work within the system, a creative visionary who is utterly unwilling to compromise, who is almost obsessively dedicated to craft, to the pursuit of perfection. He is a man intent on destroying the status quo, compelled to point out that the emperor wears no clothes. His attitude to life reminds me of the motto of another outsider who came here from Scotland to build a distilling empire; sine metu – without fear. When I ask him if he thinks he might have ruffled some feathers since his arrival here, he smiles and says “Oh I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so.”

Ultimately, what makes Mark Reynier an outsider is not where he comes from, but rather that – like Camus’s weary homme du midi – he is simply a man who is no longer willing to play the game. This project is about change, disruption, evolution: Why should he doff the cap, bend the knee or even spell whiskey with an ‘e’? His is a singular vision – of Ireland being the home of the world’s greatest single malt, and his distillery is celebrating the soil and grain of Ireland, the farmers who work the land.

Reynier firmly believes he is fighting for the pride of Ireland, and that the honesty and transparency of his whisky, when released in five years time, will offer us a novel experience – a frozen moment when every Irish whiskey drinker truly sees what is at the end of every glass, knowing exactly where it came from, who made it and why – and, for the first time in a long time, we will be able to enjoy a truly naked dram.

Perrier’s Water and Irish Coffey

In The Untouchables, a journalist asks Prohibition enforcer Elliot Ness what he will do if the American government goes ahead with plans to repeal their anti-drink laws.

‘I think I’ll have a drink’ is his pithy reply.

Calais-born and Dublin raised Aeneas Coffey – the scourge of the distilling trade in Ireland – went one better when he retired from his post as enforcer of the British empire’s suffocating excise laws; he opened a distillery.

But Coffey, a tenacious tax collector who battled the clergy and risked life and limb to obtain the crown coin from distilleries while also smashing poitin stills across the country, was not planning on building an empire on whiskey. Rather he wanted to perfect his vision of a new form of distilling, one that was cheaper, faster, safer and purer than the current form – and his invention would almost destroy the 1,000-year-old Irish distilling trade.

To understand what Coffey did, you need to go back several centuries. Around 1AD, the Moors swept across Europe, bringing with them their technology and knowledge of alchemy. One invention was the alembic still, which used steam to strip essential oils from herbs and other materials. The origins of the term alchohol lie in these times – the word is derived from the Arabic word al-kuhl, which today is termed kohl, and is a very finely crushed up used in the east to darken eyelids. Note: This has nothing to do with the dark circles under your eyes after a night on the hooch.
As Muslims, it never crossed their minds to use this apparatus to purify liquor – but Irish monks who came across the stills, after the Moors were driven from mainland Europe, were not restricted by any such laws.
The monks, guardians of knowledge throughout the dark ages, brought the alembic still to Ireland, where it was refined until it became the iconic pot still, the fat-bellied swan-necked copper apparatus that gave Ireland it’s first and possibly greatest export – whiskey. It’s worth pointing out, for the sake of fairness, that the monks in Scotland appear to have been working on the same invention; and as a result, both countries created their respective variations on liquid gold at around the same time. In the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I was quite the fan of Irish whiskey, and kept a stock of it in her court.  By the 1700s, Czar Peter The Great of Russia was quaffing it, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson had insisted the word whiskey be placed in his famous dictionary, and declared ‘the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor.’

By the 19th Century whiskey ruled the world, and in the 1880s after a crop disease ruined France’s supply of cognac, we were producing the world’s number one drink.

But at this stage things were already starting to turn. First the Famine, the crippling taxation laws of the British empire imposed by anti-alcohol advocate Lloyd George, our own temperance movement led by Fr Mathew, the Great War, Prohibition, the Irish War Of Independence, the Civil War, the economic war with Britain, our biggest export market, and, into the Second World War, the rise of the great Scotch blends – the root of whose success was Coffey’s creation. But like the man himself, whose ancestors hailed from Barryroe in west Cork, the Coffey Still, as it became known, has its origins in the Rebel County.

It was actually an improvement of an invention by Sir Anthony Perrier, one of the Cork Hugenots, a distiller and merchant prince of note. He operated the Spring Lane distillery, one of many whiskey producing operations scattered across Cork city and county, but Perrier saw that the triple-pot-still method of distillation was costly, and tried to make it more efficient by using columns. His invention was not a success, but it inspired Scotsman Robert Stein to try and create his own version. He was not successful either, but a display he gave was witnessed by Aeneas Coffey and inspired him to build his own, just as Steve Jobs was inspired by the user interface at Xerox to create the Mackintosh.

Coffey had smashed enough illicit stills and surveyed hundreds of distilleries, so he knew how inefficient, expensive and dangerous the stills could be. He could instantly see Stein’s creation had massive implications, if only it worked. So when he retired from the excise office after 25 years of confrontation – including one incident in Donegal when he was stabbed twice in the thigh and received a fractured skull from an angry mob as he went about his duties – he opened the Dock Distillery on Grand Canal Street. After he had it perfected, he tried to sell his invention to local distillers. The big four distilleries in Dublin spurned his creation, seeing it as an affront to a thousand years of tradition.

Also, Coffey’s still produced alcohol so pure that they deemed it ‘silent spirit’ – as it had ‘no tongue with which to speak of whence it came’. It lacked the elements that gave new-make pot still spirit its distinct flavours, and many in the industry blackened its name, claiming that because Coffey’s end product was so pure there was no way of knowing what went into it – many claimed rotten potatoes and refuse were used. This, of course, was nonsense – but it did lead to the beginnings of the struggle within that held the Irish whiskey industry back while their canny neighbours charged ahead.

Always ones to spot a bargain, the Scots took to the Coffey still straight away; but they realized the alcohol produced was incredibly pure, so they blended their peaty pot still whisky with the ‘silent spirit’ – now known as grain whiskey – and so the great Scotch blends were born. The Irish distillers turned up their noses, and have been lagging behind every since. Scotch went from strength to strength.

During World War Two a cash-strapped Winston Churchill saw the potential tax haul from flogging scotch, and exported it to every country he could. Americans in Europe during the war made it their drink of choice, and drank it still when they went home, and so it became a cultural icon – a symbol of masculinity, maturity, with a worldly sophistication. Scotch had won the war, and whiskey was left in its dust. After World War Two, only seven Irish distilleries remained from approximately 160 in 1880.

As for Coffey, he was never hailed as a brilliant genius who revolutionized an industry, in fact he was nearly hated more as an inventor than he was as a still-smashing tax collector for the British empire. Disillusioned after being rejected by his own, he settled in Britain and faded into obscurity. Like Virgil’s Trojan hero, from whence his name came, he was left searching for a place to call home after the greatness of earlier days:

I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.

His invention is still used across the drinks industry today, distilling alcohol for whiskey, scotch, gin and industrial purposes. As for the Irish whiskey industry, it finally embraced the still, and the blends that brought the Scots such success. The Irish industry is thriving now; perhaps this is tribute enough to the man who tried to save it and was shunned for his efforts.

Nose, palate, Finnish

I spotted an Irish-looking name in an article in The Helsinki Times about how the Finnish capital was about to get its first distillery in 125 years, thanks to two Finns and a chap named Séamus Holohan. I contacted Séamus and chatted to him about chasing his dream to the frozen north.

Via http://www.creatinghelsinki.com/the-helsinki-distilling-company/.


Ireland and Finland have more in common than you’d think. Despite being on opposite sides of the European Union, we both punch well above our weight culturally – they gave the world the great composer Sibelius (and Eurovision metallers Lordi), we gave the world James Joyce (and Johnny Logan). And we both enjoy a warming drink during those long winter nights; we have whiskey, they have vodka. But one Corkman is about to change that, as he brings Irish distilling wisdom to what will be Helsinki’s first distillery in more than 125 years.

Séamus Holohan is one of three people behind The Helsinki Distilling Company, and he, along with two Finns, is bringing one of Ireland’s oldest traditions to the far edges of Europe, but how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?

“I¹ll cut a long story short here but it was basically so that I met my future wife in Paris many years ago while studying and working after graduating from UCC with a BComm degree. When I finished studying in France I wanted some more adventure and Sigrid, a Finn, had moved to Stockholm to study.
“So I headed up there with the intention of seeing what it would be like for 6 months or so. Eighteen years, having started and sold three IT Security companies, and three kids later I felt like it was time for something new. For the past 10 years I had a running discussion with two Finnish friends regarding starting a distillery and now it was good timing for all of us.
“The idea progressed from a fun idea to a concrete plan over the years. Eventually having found a building to house the distillery, I moved over to Helsinki with my family and we started the business over a year ago.”

Séamus’s own interest in distilling was part inspired by another Corkman who left Ireland and created a drinks empire. In 1765, Killavullen mercenary Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy Cognac in France.

“My own interest in distilling started on a trip to Cognac during a summer holiday break during secondary school. With some friends we visited the Hennessy factory and then went to see a small producer.
“The small producer, Balluet, was fascinating – everything from the raw materials to the distillation equipment, I found extremely interesting. And just as interesting was the manner in which the owner was really proud of what he was doing. To me it seemed like something that would be great to do – to produce something concrete, a real product that you could take pride in. That desire never left me.”

But this isn’t the reckless pursuit of a dream – Séamus and his two partners have put a lot of work and research into this venture: “Mikko Mykkänen is our Master Distiller and has been involved in the production of alcohol for many years. I have experience of starting companies and we have a third partner, Kai Kilpinen, who is helping on the
marketing side.

“Before launching The Helsinki Distilling Company, Mikko and myself embarked on a road-trip in Sweden to see many of the small distilleries that have appeared there making whisky over the last decade. It was inspiring to see the amount of energy that the owners had and it confirmed for us that there is a viable market for premium craft distillates.

And the whiskey renaissance back home also fueled the vision: “In addition I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTE that John Teeling gave a number of years ago where he said many interesting things about the global whiskey industry, and also the Cooley distillery was a fantastic story.”

Despite the renewed interest in whiskey back home, Séamus knew that his family now had their roots down in Scandinavia: “It was never really considered to start the distillery in Ireland for family reasons. My kids love going to Ireland and have even spent some time attending school in Ballygiblin but are more accustomed to Sweden and Finland. And since I have been working in the Nordics for so long I know more about doing business here than at home.

“In addition my partners are Finns and living here. Finland has very few distilleries so it is something new and exotic for the Finns to have one producing whiskey and gin in the capital.
“In Ireland we would be one more distillery in addition to those already in existence and starting up. I¹m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to deal with a good deal of scepticism and red-tape before starting the distillery.

“But now we have it running and have been producing premium gin and our whiskey is starting its maturation. We are also lucky to have the distillery very close to the city centre and in the middle of the food culture capital of Finland Teurastamo, which means ‘abattoir’ and is the old slaughterhouse area for Helsinki.”

Setting up a distillery here is more straightforward, but so is our language – Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn. So did Séamus struggle with it?

“Coming from Sweden, I suppose it wasn¹t as much of a culture shock as coming directly from Ireland. I had visited Finland many times with my wife during the years and have many friends here. Having said that, it is one thing to visit somewhere and another to live there. It is true that you can get by quite well with English and Swedish here, but it would be great to speak some Finnish. However, Finnish is a fenno-ugric language, quite difficult to learn, and there are very few similarities with any of the Indo-European languages. My aim is to start a night course next year and hopefully pick up enough to get by doing everyday things – that will be the fourth time I have started a Finnish course and I hope I make more progress this time. Our kids attend Swedish school as Finland is officially a bi-lingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”

And the language wasn’t the only stumbling block: “On the cultural side of things, Finland is very different to Ireland. But I really like the sauna culture. I¹m no longer amazed at people being naked, hitting themselves with birch twigs, while sweating profusely in really hot saunas, before running outside to temperatures of less than minus twenty five degrees, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it¹s a good idea to take up winter sports here to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”

And those long, dark winters are contributory factors in the regulation of the drinks industry in Finland – to the point that the state actually controls the sale of liquor.

“Yes, the government does really control the alcohol industry. Until 1995 it was illegal to have a distillery with the distilling only done by the state monopoly of Altia. Today, Alko, is the state monopoly for the sale of stronger alcohol (above 5% vol.) to private persons. It is now possible to sell directly to restaurants and bars however. And the prices are kept high with duty and taxes.”

So that much we have in common – in Ireland about 17 euro of the cost of a bottle of whiskey goes to the taxman, and while the government here hopes to crack down on below-cost selling by the large retailers, the Finns found another way to bypass the excise and  get cheap booze – the ferry to Estonia. Although Séamus is quick to point out that this practise is dying out.

“People still get on the ferry to Estonia but perhaps not as often as they used to due to some price harmonisation taking place some years ago.”

And as for the whisky they are making: “As elsewhere, there is a growing number of people who are willing to pay more for better quality products and also there is a growing interest in locally produced goods. We are making gin, whiskey and applejack. Where possible we are using local ingredients so our gin for example has a Finnish lingonberry twist. Our applejack is made from apples from Salo which is about an hours drive from Helsinki.”

And as for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately 2 million liters of whiskey per year – 1.7 million litres is sold through Alko. Most of the whisky consumed is Scotch blends, with Canadian whiskies in second place. Irish whiskey is sold to the tune of 145.000 litres through Alko.

“Other whiskies, including Finnish, amount to less than 6000 litres so there is some room for growth. There is a growing interest in whiskey in Finland. And, as in Ireland, the Finns are looking to try new products and the product range is excellent in many bars and restaurants.”

In whiskey tasting terms, the finish is the name for the epicurean effects of the drink once it has been swallowed; the mouthfeel and lingering flavours that expand on the palate. As Séamus and his business partners begin casking their new rye whisky, they will be hoping that when the time comes for it to hit the market, whisky drinkers will enjoy a perfect Finnish.

Technical details:
Séamus reveals what Finalnd – and the world – can expect from the Helsinki Distilling Company: “For our whiskey we are using Finnish malt from Lähti. The malt is not
peated but we may experiment in the future with peated malts. Some of the
best rye in the world is grown in Finland.

“So from the start we were determined to make a Finnish whiskey and use Finnish raw materials without simply trying to copy an Irish whiskey or to make Scotch. There is no reason why excellent whiskies cannot be made here. For the rye whiskey we include some barley in the mash to help with the process. Our ingredients are chosen from the best local ingredients available with the rye being custom malted for our requirements. We are using both American and French new oak barrels that are medium toasted. The French oak come from the areas of Alliers and Limousin. Both American and French are offered to cask owners and so far the French have proven more popular. Later on we
will be using different barrels including old sherry and port casks for finishing. We are working with a local cooper from outside Turku to source the barrels.

“We are using a pot still that has an attached column. This allows us to use either the pot still and produce that kind of whiskey or to use the column. Our final products will resemble more American Rye whiskies than Irish or Scottish.”
Footnote: The Irish Times also spoke to Séamus, but obviously my interview is wayyyyy better.


‘We didn’t know we were so thick’


They say that, and yet:

Mr O’Donnell, a successful corporate lawyer, and Mary Pat, a psychiatrist, quietly and quickly built up an impressive property portfolio during the height of the boom. It was valued at €1.1bn and got the couple onto Ireland’s rich list.

Their portfolio stretched from Dublin to London, Stockholm and Washington. They owned a chalet in Courcheval, the upmarket French ski resort. They bought and restored Gortdrisagh House, a Victorian pile in Oughterard, Co Galway with its own private harbour.

And of course they also had Gorse Hill. The O’Donnells bought it in 1998 for €1.4m as their family home and later acquired a piece of land next door for €1.5m. The site was redeveloped into the home it is now. Valued at €30m in its heyday, it is now worth an estimated €7m.

When the credit crunch hit, the debt that fuelled their wealth stood at around €900m. The couple started selling off properties and restructuring debts. They agreed a settlement in March 2011 with Bank of Ireland, but nine months later the bank secured a judgement against them for €71.5m claiming they failed to honour repayments promised under the deal.

By then, Brian and Mary Pat O’Donnell had moved full-time to London and applied for bankruptcy there, hoping to walk clear of their debts after a year, under the UK’s more lenient system. But the judge didn’t believe their main centre of business was in the UK.

And yet: