Pearse Lyons

After the passing of Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech a year ago, I wrote this tribute piece for FFT.ie:

Dr Thomas Pearse Lyons was a man who looked beyond the surface. Many business empires are built on marketing and spin, but Dr Lyons, a consummate scientist, spent his career looking deeper into animal nutrition, brewing and distilling. His death on March 8 left behind a vast empire, with a business that employed more than four thousand people in ninety countries and spanned agrifoods, brewing, and distilling – a fitting legacy for a man who had an endless thirst for knowledge, and a mind like a razor.

Thomas Pearse Lyons (1944-2018) grew up in Dundalk. One of six children, his mother ran a grocers, and it is she who he credits with his drive and entrepreneurial spirit. Aged just 14 he started working in the laboratory of the local Harp Brewery – his parents were both teetotallers, but on his mother’s side he came from five generations of coopers to the great distilleries of Dublin.

On the insistence of his mother, he studied biochemistry in University College Dublin. Later,  in 1971, he received his Phd in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham, after which he worked for Irish Distillers, playing a pivotal role in the design of the new Midleton Distillery, a facility that was to become central to the battle to save Irish whiskey from annihilation during the lean years of the 1980s.

But while his education and experience in Ireland and the UK laid the groundwork for his success, it was in America that he achieved his most remarkable feats.

Emigrating to Kentucky in the 1976, he worked with local ethanol distillers to help improve their processes. After four years, he finally made the move that would define his life’s work, and, using a loan of 10,000, he started a company in the garage of his house.

At this stage he was married to Deirdre, and they had two young children, Mark and Aoife. It was a risky move for anyone, but especially someone who is married with a young family. The company, Alltech, specialised in animal nutrients, and in its first year it turned over a million dollars.

As the value of his company soared, he diversified into brewing and distilling, as well as authoring a number of texts on the subjects. He became involved in philanthropy, building laboratories for schools, and helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake in 2010. While he was a well-known figure in the US, back home he was less well known, save for appearances in annual rich lists. It seemed a shame that one of our great success stories was not as celebrated in his native land as he was in the US – but all that was about to change.

The Irish whiskey category was booming, and Dr Lyons stated to consider bringing his brewing and distilling skills back home. In 2013 he started to search Dublin for somewhere to build a distillery. His choice of location show just how he was able to see beyond the surface – a dilapidated church in the Liberties, the spire of which had been removed. Although the site had a rich history that went back centuries, in recent times the site had been left to decay, with the church itself being used as a lighting showroom. There were other site he could have chosen – places less expensive to build, with less heritage and fewer complications – but he did not shy away from a challenge. A complete rebuild and restoration of the church and its surrounds saw the billionaire spend some 20 million euro creating the Pearse Lyons Distillery At St James’s, complete with stained glass windows showing the saint after which the church was named, and one of Dr Lyons’s cooper ancestors. Opening last September, it is a fitting monument to a man who blazed a trail in the sciences and in his many philanthropic work.

As with any business leader, it can be sometimes hard to get a sense of who they are. Dr Lyons always cut a dash, with his dickie bows, sing-songs and boundless positivity. For a man who was able to look beyond the immediately visible, his death leaves you wondering what drove him to achieve all he did.

There is of course, a very simple answer: Family. His family was built into his success from day one – Alltech takes its name from his daughter, Dr Aoife Louise Lyons, while its signature colour was chosen by his son, Dr Mark Lyons. Mark and Aoife are senior members of the firm. Dr Lyons’s wife Deirdre is director of corporate image and design, and even designed the stained glass windows in St James’s, while she also oversees Alltech’s philanthropic works worldwide. Speaking about his wife upon the opening of the distillery, Dr Lyons said: “The builders said that they loved working with Deirdre because she never changed her mind. Never. She has the vision of what she wants to do. I think this is what makes us a formidable team. It’s telling our story. It’s history.”

Dr Lyons’s death on March 8, 2018 from a heart problem, marked the sudden end to a remarkable life. His son Mark said in a statement: ““He saw farther into the horizon than anyone in the industry, and we, as his team, are committed to delivering on the future he envisioned.”

Dr Pearse Lyons will be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to science, to business, and to making the world a better place. But beyond the empire he created, it is his dedication to his family is the most inspirational aspect of his life – he looked beyond the horizon, but he never forgot that family was life’s most important work.

Future perfect

And in the hills, the cities: The Dungourney maturation site. 


And on the seventh day, the Irish whiskey category did not rest: It’s time for a Sunday morning press release: 

Irish Distillers announces €150 million investment in sites in Cork and Dublin

More than €150 million is to be invested into Irish Distillers’ Midleton Distillery, maturation site in Dungourney, Co. Cork, and bottling plant Fox and Geese, Dublin over the next two years

Sunday, 14th of October 2018: Irish Distillers, the makers of the world’s most enjoyed whiskeys and one of Ireland’s leading suppliers of spirits and wines, has announced the investment of over €150 million in its sites in Cork and Dublin to meet demand for its products as the Irish whiskey renaissance continues apace. This is accelerated by the continued growth of Jameson which is now in double or triple-digit growth in more than 80 markets across the world. Nearly €130 million is to be spent expanding and upgrading the distillery in Midleton, and maturation site in Dungourney, Co. Cork, with over €20 million being invested in development of its bottling plant in Fox and Geese, Co. Dublin.

The investment will see the construction of eight new maturation warehouses, each holding 16,800 casks, with further land to be purchased to support the next phase of development, in Dungourney, Co. Cork.

The Garden Stillhouse. 

The company has also added an additional mechanical vapour recompression evaporator, made by GEA Wiegand in Germany, to its Midleton Distillery in East Cork. The addition allows the distillery to further expand its capacity. A third mash filter and new fermenters are also to be installed in the distillery to meet the increasing demand for its portfolio of whiskeys. The distillery will also complete construction of a new office building in July 2019.

Investment in Irish Distillers’ bottling site in Fox and Geese will see extensions to the main operating bottling hall, storage warehouses, laboratory, and office spaces and additional upgrades to bottling and packing equipment.

Commenting on the investment, Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO said: “This €150 million investment in Midleton, Dungourney and Fox and Geese reflects the growing international success of Irish Distillers’ whiskey portfolio. With a tradition dating back to 1780, we have been distilling in the Midleton Distillery since 1975 and we are delighted to confirm our commitment to this tradition, and at the same time continue to embrace progress, delivering new and innovative expressions of Irish whiskey. We look forward to building upon our success story by continuing to bring innovative Irish whiskeys to the market.

“Irish whiskey is the fastest growing premium spirit in the world, with sales now accounting for more than one third of all Irish beverage exports. This investment will help to allow this growth to continue for years to come. The company is proud to play its role in the Irish drinks industry, which is a hugely important part of the Irish economy.”

Press release ends. No mention of another distillery…..yet.  While you’re here, please enjoy this piece of wild speculation á la Bill – Arise

The end of the beginning

It’s hard to say if 2017 was what you would call a great year. It was certainly one of changes – we settled into our new home (my old home) and learned to adapt to terrible broadband (PS4 games take a week to download), rubbish windows (we all wear parkas indoors) and beautiful scenery (it overlooks a distillery). For my family it was a lot to take – my kids were far from their friends, my wife was basically operating a shuttle back and forth from Midleton – sometimes up to 12 trips a day – and they all had to cope with a father lost in grief. But things got better – after avoiding it all my life, I started driving, which saved my wife at least two trips a day, and things have generally moved on and become less bleak since I posted this on January 1st of this year. 

I still work in a hospital, something that I love. To simply be able to be kind to people in need is incredibly humbling – even basics like giving someone directions, or walking them to their destination (it is a massive hospital) is an important part of making that person’s experience in the hospital as pleasant and positive as possible. Clerical staff like me have our own minor roles to play in patient care, and it isn’t all about crossing Ts or dotting Is – sometimes it’s about chatting to a patient about the weather, or parking, or Brexit. To be able to say, don’t be scared, it’ll be fine, is a great thing. And everything is always fine, in the end.

When I worked in the media I became desensitized to the suffering of others. I sat at a desk and helped sell grief and horror. Obviously, not all journalism is about car-crash rubbernecking, but much of what we call news is unnecessary voyeurism. The coverage of the Hawe tragedy was one that had me asking what it’s all about – what greater truth was going to be uncovered in the details plastered across every page, what lessons for society? I’m not saying I was any different when I worked in papers – as a sub it was my job to make these stories as dramatic as possible using words and images, so I was just as much part of the grand harvester of sorrow as anyone. I can still remember the thrill of a tragedy happening on a slow news day, when you knew you had it for the front page before anyone else. In the end, newspapers are a commercial product – everyone has bills to pay, everyone has an owner, and everyone is selective about what they consider to be the truth. Clark Kent didn’t change a goddam thing in his day job.

One of the most curious parts of the period after my father’s death is just how creative it has been. A piece I wrote about caring for him and preparing to say goodbye ended up being the springboard to a strange sort of renaissance, and ultimately ended with me getting a weekly column in the Irish Independent, which I am contractually obliged to tell you sells 90,000 copies a day and is one of the biggest selling papers in the country. I try to explain it to my daughter as being like having a blog with 90,000 followers. She is duly unimpressed.

Apart from that, I have written more for the Irish Examiner, the Indo and even just this blog than I ever have, as I slowly worked my way through the grief. All this meant that even though I was working two jobs, both were very fulfilling – the hospital is rewarding in a very human way, while the writing has been both cathartic and, obviously enough, a boost to my own self esteem at a time when I suffering a sort of professional midlife crisis. I also like the extra money, as it allows me to buy a decent bottle now and again without feeling like I was stealing from my kids’ piggy banks.  

This brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Obviously, one post this year stands out – the publication of a long-overdue post on transparency in Irish whiskey. I have another long-form follow-up piece on that topic, so I won’t waste my breath on it here. Suffice to say, it was a conversation that needed to be had. I don’t really care how many brands there are, or where they come from – I care where they don’t come from, and I don’t want us all to look like fools.

Irish whiskey is booming – sales continue to rocket, distilleries are getting over the line with funding and planning, and – a sure sign that we are entering the golden age – Whiskey Live Dublin is going to be a two-day event next year. This year’s event was packed – more stalls, more punters, more fans, more nerds.  We even have our own Irish whiskey glass, the Tuath, two magazines, growth in the Irish Whiskey Society (and an incredible year for the Cork Whiskey Society, who put on mind-blowing tastings with extinct drams), and more and more whiskey fans on Twitter, and presumably, that toilet of the soul, Facebook. Irish whiskey sales are even at the stage where multiples are starting to take note.

It was Whiskey Nut who noticed it first – Aldi were going to be selling a 26 year old single malt for under fifty euro. It had to be an error, I thought – this was presumably a Bushmills, of the same age as some of the (presumably) Bushmills that Teeling sell for hundreds of euro. How could it be this cheap? I had to find out. So on the day of the special buys, I was in Aldi Wilton at 10.25am practically frothing at the mouth. There was no sign of it. Could it have sold out, I wondered? No, it had never arrived, a staff member informed me. I left….only to return at 4pm. Still no sign. Over the following week I visited four Aldi branches a total of seven times. I could see on Twitter that others up the country were getting them – ‘that’s more of it’ I thought to myself. ‘The metropolitan elite being catered for’ I realised. ‘The pricks’ I mused.

Of course, it was not that Aldi hates Cork people (everyone else does, presumably out of jealousy or possibly because of the accent), but a logistics SNAFU at their Mitchelstown hub. I know this as the good people of Ballyhoura Mushrooms told me, proving what I knew back in the Nineties – that mushrooms bring enlightenment. Eventually, Cork stores got the whiskey, and I selfishly bought five. One was a gift for my goddaughter, another for a friend, one was sold to a fellow whiskey fan from Dublin (I flipped it for fifty euro, clearing a cool profit of one cent), and the other two are there on a shelf, staring at me, judging me for my greed. They are my tell-tale heart. Of course the saddest part of the whole escapade was my son being dragged from Aldi store to Aldi store to beat the customer quotas, leading him to call me an Aldiholic, which is both impressive and more than a little depressing.

There was one rare whiskey that I didn’t have to work quite so hard to obtain. Two weeks ago I came home to find a package on the front door. A gift from my neighbours, the good people at Irish Distillers. I’m not sure what I did to deserve such a generous gift; or what I might have to do. Part of me is now concerned that one day a message will come from IDL that they want me to go back in time and kill Aeneas Coffey, or egg Andre Levy’s house. Frankly, I’d do both for free.

I’ve got a few bottles of MVR over the years, most of which I have regifted. It is just too expensive for my tastes. I don’t have much disposable income and there is something obscene about spending that much on a bottle of booze. My cut off for whiskey is about 120, max; I recently picked up a 21-year-old Ardmore for 90, but that was too good a bargain to pass up.

But, despite the price, MVR sells like hot cakes. Part of that is the vintage aspect – it is used as a marker for weddings, births, business deals, promotions, graduations; it is a stamp in time. When the bottle relaunched earlier this year I pointed out that, while I didn’t like saying anything was ‘just a blend’, MVR was that – a blend. But while it is a blend, it is also a product of its time. When first released in 1984, it was genuinely rare as it included spirit from the old Midleton distillery. Obviously those days are long gone, unless there is one of those cask circle offerings that date back to old Midleton. Matt Healy has an excellent post on the history of MVR – it’s well worth a read, not least because of the comments section, where people queue up to ask Matt how much their various vintages are worth. It’s a testament to what a nice guy Matt is that he doesn’t do what I would have done and told them all to JFGI (Just Fucking Google It). 

Part of the reason MVR was the world’s first premium blend was one of necessity – Midleton don’t officially make malt (they do now in the micro-distillery), so a world-class single malt was not something they could bring to the table. They had aged pot still whiskey stocks – but back then, who knew what that was? How would you sell that as a premium drink, when category awareness outside of whiskey geeks was basically nil? So they brought out a premium blend, and it has gone on to become one of the best known whiskeys from Midleton, outside of the triumvirate of Paddy/Powers/Jameson.

So MVR  is well-made, well-aged and well-marketed. But is it any good? Guess what, this post – much like my childhood drowning story became a review of Laphroaig QC, my story about Storm Ophelia became a review of Teeling Brabazon II, and my piece on Converge became a review of A’Bunadh – is about to awkwardly segue into a whiskey review.

MVR 2017 comes in two versions – the oldschool edition for collectors who want to continue the line, and the new, disruptive remodel that I got. It comes in a beautiful wooden box, all copper seams and tasteful design, and looks well worth the pricetag.

Pouring it, I am hit by how thick it is, and how guilty I feel about drinking something that costs this much. On the nose lots of cloves and cinnamon, hot cedar – and less oomph than I expected. I feel like the weight just isn’t there – but this is once again with the obviously prejudiced mindset of someone who uses phrases like ‘just a blend’. There is also that soft sweetness of Haribo strawberries, but sadly none of the toffee/caramel notes that get my sweet tooth jonesing. On the palate – before any real flavour there is that incredible smoothness. This is that smooth Irish they talk about – velvet, creamy texture, possibly aided by a disappointingly low ABV of 40%. Honestly, everything should just be 45% upward. I don’t care if it makes the drink less like the soft kiss of moonlight and more like Pompeii is happening in the middle of your face, I love that holy fuck effect you get from strong whiskey. It’s the pupil-dilating suckerpunch I crave, it makes you sit up and take note of what’s happening.

With the MVR, that smooth, oily glide makes way to reveal a little caramel, biscuity notes, a little plum, but then I get that from almost every whiskey.  Very light hints of vanilla, but really more of that freshness from the nose. It’s surprisingly light and eerily drinkable. I poured a single dram for tasting and was onto a generous second in no time; this isn’t science, guys, no need for laboratory conditions.

The finish here is deceptive – you think it’s all over, but there it is, reverberating away in the background for some time. Again, this is just so smooth, it is remarkable. While I would favour a Redbreast 21 (or possibly even the CS version of the 12) over this as a personal choice, this has a luxuriant grace that is hard to find fault with.

MVR calls itself the pinnacle of Irish whiskey – back in ‘84, that may well have been the case. The entire category was struggling to survive. But this is 2017, and the pinnacle, we now realise, is yet to be achieved. MVR has been overtaken by the Dair Ghaelachs and, if I’m totally honest, the Connemara 22 year old, which is a beauty, or any number of other great Irish whiskeys. But MVR has what other brands aspire to – an aura that has permeated the consciousness of the average consumer. It is the ideal gift for a collector or for anyone as a special gift to mark a special year.

As for the premium blend as a concept – I honestly don’t think we can unseat the Scots without a single malt that will reshape how whisky drinkers see Irish whiskey. A world-class, world-beating single malt – and we are more than capable of this. For a small nation, we excel at adapting (a skill learned through centuries of brutal oppression). Look at our attitude to rugby – the garrison sport, the one the outsiders play. Ten years ago we took on our old foes England at their own game in Croke Park. Mountain-made-flesh John Hayes cried during the national anthem. We crushed them 43-13, and suddenly rugby is an Irish sport.

It’s all very well to say single pot still whiskey is the greatest drink on God’s green earth, but not many outside of Ireland understand it. It’s like hurling – we know its bullet-time mayhem makes it one of the most skillful games in the world, but to outsiders it is – as described in Blitz –  a cross between hockey and murder. Single pot still whiskey is amazing, but to grab the attention of the world we could really do with a jaw-dropping single malt – much the same was Japan suddenly became the one to watch thanks to Yamazaki. It’s an oversimplification, but the point is that we can be the best again. It’s not about sales, but respect.

So that was 2017 for MVR, Irish whiskey in general, and my family and I. Some good moments, some bad, but overall a positive year, one for regrowth and resurgence. My hopes for 2018 are the same as last year – that multinationals stop playing pass the parcel with Bushmills and actually invest some time, money and vision into what should be our Macallan/Glenlivet/insert global scotch brand here. That place has the stocks, the brand, the staff – it has everything. So why is it so hard to let it shine? Red Bush, are you fucking kidding me? The name alone makes me want to pour it down a drain. With looming Brexit, confusion over what sort of border we are going to have, and a lurch to the right over on the mainland, it’s time to embrace Bushmills as the prodigal child of Irish whiskey that it is. This isn’t some nationalist rant – NI is a phantom limb, and we need to let it go – but I am saddened by how one of the great distilleries of this island has been allowed to languish. I know I’ve said this several times before, but I’ve spoken to a few people who worked there in both marketing and production, and they said the same – no owner has loved that distillery like they should have. That isn’t right.

Aside from that hopeless hope, I’d love to see more Irish whiskey bloggers in 2018. I don’t fit that bill, as virtually everything I write is about really only about myself, with whiskey having a sort of walk-on part in my existential crises, so it would be great to see more blogs like Liquid Irish, still one of the best food and drink blogs in Ireland. More voices, more diversity, more people with the knowledge of whiskey to celebrate and, more importantly, defend the category from itself.

Here’s to better days, better drams and those unscaled peaks.

It’s beginning to look a lot like advertorial

I wrote a few bits for the Examiner to go in a seasonal supplement on Midleton, naturally I started with the distillery, then a well-curated email interview with Ignacio, above, GM of the heritage centre, and a couple of other bits, including one on Iceland. You pay me and I will write about anything guys, anything.

 

There used to be two distilleries in Midleton. Everyone knows about the Jameson one on the east side of town; but at the other end of the main street, alongside the Owenacurra River, close to the Mill Road site of Erin Foods, there was once another sizeable whiskey making operation. The Hackett brothers opened on this site in the early 1800s and at their height they produced 200,000 gallons of whiskey and employed 60 people. They had an eye on the future, with an interest in distilling from sugar beet. A series of unfortunate business moves and economic factors outside their control saw them lose it all, and no trace of the distillery remains. The story of the Hacketts serves as a fitting counterpoint to the fortunes of the Murphy brothers who started Midleton Distillery. They ran a tight ship, one that made it through two centuries of choppy waters, and made Midleton the stronghold of Irish whiskey, given that at one stage the only other distillery was Bushmills in Northern Ireland.

The success of Midleton distillery is down the Murphy brothers’ choices – at the same time the Hacketts were experimenting with sugar beet, the Murphy brothers were keeping a steady eye on the horizon. They chose wisely from day one – even in their choice of location: They had the infrastructure in the form of an old mill and river alongside, giving them enough power their enormous mill wheel, and provide them with enough water to create 400,000 gallons of whiskey annually. When the Hacketts employed 60 staff, the Murphys had three times that number.

There is no trace of Hackett distillery in Midleton anymore. However, the Murphy distillery has kept the spirit alive for two hundred years, surviving the lean times from the early 1900s through periods of contraction in the industry and even a spell when the distillery was only operational a couple of days a week, such was the low level of demand for Irish whiskey. Of course, the last ten years has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world, thanks largely to Midleton and its owners, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.

Huge investment has seen the modern distillery become one of the most modern and efficient in the world, while the heritage side of it has gone from strength to strength, expanding their tourism offerings with the Irish Whiskey Academy, which offers bespoke two-day courses for the true whiskey nerd, and the micro-distillery, which not only brought distilling back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades, but has also become a space for experimentation with different grains.

Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO said: “Here at home we’re proud to see our Irish whiskey sales growing. We also welcomed the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association’s Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy in late 2016 which aims to increase Irish Whiskey Tourism from 653,277 visitors per annum up to 1.9 million visitors by 2025. We were delighted with the results of our €11 million redevelopment of the Jameson Distillery Bow St., which has welcomed more than 180,000 visitors despite being closed for six months. When combined with the Jameson Experience Midleton, we welcomed over 310,000 visitors to our brand homes to experience the best of Irish whiskey this year.”

IDL experienced another successful financial year in 2016/2017 with the acceleration of the global development of Jameson and its premium Single Pot Still Irish whiskey range, which includes the Spot whiskeys, as well as Redbreast. Innovation in its portfolio has been key to the sustained growth: Recent product launches include Jameson Caskmates, which experienced 110% volume growth in 2016/17.

A sign of the growing confidence in the category is the launch of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club, which invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required. The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Clearly, this is one offer aimed at the high rollers – the first member of the cask circle was Hollywood heavyweight Dana Brunetti, with a large number of recent members coming from Asia.

To top off a stellar year Midleton’s Redbreast 21-year-old and Midleton Dair Ghaelach were both in the top three of whisky legend Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018 is the 15th edition of the publication and contains taste notes for over 4,600 drams. With over 1,200 new whiskies tasted for the latest edition of the international guide, the supreme Col. Taylor faced stiff competition from European rivals to claim the top award. In third place behind Redbreast 21 and Col. Taylor was Glen Grant Aged 18 Years Rare Edition, which drops from its second-place finish in 2016. Commenting on the accolade, Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Irish Distillers said: “This nod from Jim Murray is truly heartwarming for me and everyone at Midleton Distillery who has helped to make Redbreast such an enjoyed whiskey. We are humbled by this and it’s really encouraging to see traditional Irish pot still whiskey take one of the top spots in the world of whiskeys and whiskies. When we were preparing for the launch of Redbreast 21 in 2013 and we were doing our tastings, we knew we had something special on our hands so it is great to see this appreciation shared by people across the world. This award is a testament to the team at Midleton and especially to my predecessors who had the foresight to squirrel away those casks that helped us to bring Redbreast 21 to the world.”

Midleton has outlived many other competitors – from the Hacketts at the other end of town, to distilleries all over Ireland that failed over the last two centuries. As we head into a second golden age of Irish whiskey, it will be Midleton that will guide the category to greater and greater success.

 

As ‎general manager of ‎The Jameson Experience Midleton, Ignacio Peregrina is in charge of one of southern Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions – perhaps a fitting career for someone who came from one of Europe’s top holiday destinations.

“I’m from Gran Canaria, an island famed for its welcome and tourism, and I wanted to move somewhere with a similar passion for hospitality. I arrived in Ireland just over 15 years ago; I came for the craic but ended up staying and building a life here. Once I met my future wife Claire I knew Ireland was the place for me. I met her within an hour of landing, my buddy picked me up from the airport and we went to a Salsa class where I met the wonderful Claire. We were married three years ago in Midleton and we are blessed to call Midleton our home.

“My path to Midleton started in Dublin. During my time there, I worked for four years in the Jameson Distillery Bow St. and I also undertook a degree in Hospitality and Tourism in DIT. I’ve always had a passion for food and drink so Dublin was a great place to explore this passion. During my time in Bow St., I built up experience across all areas of the business and that helped me to secure my dream job here in Midleton as General Manager of the Jameson Experience.”

Of course, he isn’t the only person to come from overseas to Midleton: “It is a great pleasure to welcome people from many different nations. A considerable percentage of our visitors arrive via tour operators and it’s always a good day for me to pull up at work and see buses filled with people excited to experience Midleton Distillery.

“The top five visiting nationalities, in no particular order, are French, German, British, American and Irish, with the Jameson Experience tour being our largest selling tour. However, in recent years we have opened the Micro Distillery and Irish Whiskey Academy and the craft tours we have created for these areas are proving very popular, especially with whiskey enthusiasts. Midleton Distillery offers a truly sensorial experience where you can see, hear, feel and smell a live distillery in action.”

The Jameson Experience in Dublin recently closed for a renovation, and while their new tour is all singing, all dancing, Midleton offers an insight into the processes of whiskey making: “The main difference between the two sites is that our Bow St. team focus primarily on Jameson Whiskey whilst my team here in Midleton explore all our whiskey brands – Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, the Spot Range, Midleton Very Rare and the newly launched, Method & Madness.

“My opposite number at the Jameson Distillery Bow St.  operates several great tours of varying duration and intensity so, whether you’re new to the world of whiskey, a connoisseur or a budding cocktail maker, they have an experience for you.

“Here at Midleton Distillery we also provide a range of tour experiences such as the Jameson Experience, the Behind the Scenes tour, and the Academy Experience. All are great fun and offer visitors wonderful insights into some of Ireland’s historic whiskey brands.”

The Irish Whiskey Association is pushing whiskey tourism here, and recently held the launch of their southern whiskey tourism plan in Midleton: “Ireland has great potential to become a world class destination for whiskey tourism. As the Irish whiskey industry grows, we’ve welcomed many visitors from new and established distillery attractions who are keen to learn what we do and how we do it. Irish Distillers have been operating whiskey visitor centres for over 30 years so we have plenty of experience to share. We don’t see other distilleries as competition, which of course they are, but, as one of the guardians of the Irish Whiskey industry we’re delighted to help in any way we can.

“At Midleton Distillery we’re ready to welcome anyone who would like to improve the whiskey tourism product. We have tough competition from our friends in Scotland but if the whiskey players in Ireland work together we can offer an amazing experience.”

Peregrina also works closely with the local Chamber in Midleton: “An effective Chamber of Commerce can make a significant difference to a town and we’re blessed to have such a great team here in Midleton.

“Midleton town has been home to whiskey distilling since 1825 and is our priority to work with and support the local community as much as possible. We do everything we can to make sure more people come to Midleton and leave with lovely memories that will last a lifetime.”

 

Bluebells

The bluebell flower blooms in spring of each year. Usually located on the forest floor, they burst into life as the first rays of a brighter sun touch on them, after its long absence during the winter months. Their bulbous, indigo flowers are a sign that brighter days are coming.

Opening a business in the teeth of the worst recession in Irish history would have been a brave move for any business person. But to open a gift shop in a small town in east Cork seems like absolute madness. However, seven years on and Hazell Abbott’s compact and bijou Bluebells on Midleton’s Main Street is still going strong. Of course, the success of the store isn’t just it’s selection of interesting gift ideas, but in Abbott’s background as an accountant. However, even she admits that it was a crazy idea: “I opened up at the worst time,” she laughs, “everyone thought I was totally mad.”

From Offaly originally, her husband hails from Barryroe in west Cork, so when it came to them leaving Dublin, the chose to head south. She had planned to open a gift shop for several years, but location would be key.  She and her husband – who is also an accountant – went on a reconnaissance mission to towns around Cork to find the perfect blend of a good space at a good price – and a good buzz about the place. They settled on Midleton, citing the atmosphere, the large hinterland and the fact that while other towns struggled over the last 20 years, Midleton has thrived. It is a wealthy town. After a successful few years, she expanded the shop to the rear, and took on two staff so she could spend more time with her husband and their two year old son.

While her business shifts into top gear from here to January, it is more than just a seasonal outlet – as she notes, there are always gifts needed for wedding, anniversaries, new babies and birthdays. But at this time of year her shop is busier than ever, with its selection of bric a brac and miscellania – a selection that Hazel spends some time choosing, ensuring that her offerings are not widely available in the town, dropping lines that are carried elsewhere. But at this time of year her shop is a godsend for anyone looking for that just-so item, the little thing that you haven’t seen anywhere else, that most elusive thing – the ideal Christmas gift.

Iceland

Hermann Jónasson was a famously hot-blooded Icelandic politician who famously once slapped a member of an opposition party. Despite this, he is remembered as one of his country’s great politicians, which is perhaps why Malcolm Walker, a British businessman, decided to pay tribute to Jónasson – a family friend of the Walkers – when he opened his new supermarket chain. That was back in 1970, and now almost half a century later, the chain is going from strength to strength. Almost from day one the focus was on freezer food – and it upon this rock that they built their church.

Iceland initially came to Ireland in 1996, but withdrew in 2005, only to return in 2008. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, with their 18th store in the Republic opening in Shannon next month. This flurry of store openings was the result of a €12 million investment in nine new stores in Ireland this year alone. Some 270 new jobs were created across the country as part of the investment in the new stores in Tallaght, Galway, Cork (Douglas, Fermoy, Ballincollig) Letterkenny, Limerick, Shannon, and Gorey.

Ron Metcalfe, Managing Director of Iceland Ireland said “We have been back in Ireland for four years now and have been committed to expansion from day one. This new investment sees 2017 as our biggest year yet with our nine new stores opening. We’re looking forward to bringing great value and a brand customers can trust to Tallaght, Galway, and across the country this year, as well as welcoming new team members to the Iceland family. And as always, we’re looking forward to expanding and delivering the Power of Frozen to more Irish customers than ever before”.

The Midleton store opened in 2014, and brought a much-needed boost to Distillery Lanes, a Celtic Tiger era development at the east end of the town. Since then the store has thrived, offering a unique food offering to shoppers who flock there from across Munster. Iceland is home to over 2,000 branded fresh and frozen grocery products, and supports Irish with more than 32 local suppliers – in addition to being the exclusive stockist of the Slimming World range in Ireland. Iceland Midleton even offers a home delivery service, while Iceland was also the first UK supermarket to remove artificial flavourings, colouring, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and non-essential preservatives from its own branded products in 1986. In 1990 Iceland took the lead in banning mechanically recovering meat (MRM) from own brand products; and in 1998 Iceland became the world’s first national food retailer to ban genetically modified (GM) ingredients from own brand products.

Iceland has thrown off the old stigma of convenience foods, and is now a one-stop shop for the party season and beyond. With a recovering economy and the festive season ahead, it looks like Iceland are heading into their biggest Christmas yet, while the brand has come full circle in recent years by opening an outlet in Iceland itself. Hermann Jónasson would be proud.

Forty shades of delicious

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

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

 

Brewing up a storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distillers of future past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

 

Distilling in the name of….

So I got to take part in the Irish Whiskey Academy here in my hometown, along with a bunch of whisk(e)y writers, bloggers and promoters. It was a lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in whiskey….and a grand to spare. This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner shortly before Christmas. The photos were all taken by me, which might explain why they are rubbish. 

Every Christmas I watch Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the same sense of wonder I had when I was a kid. As someone cursed with a relentlessly sweet tooth, I still like to imagine that the inside of any factory that produces my favorite things would be as magical. Obviously tastes change and people grow, and after careful consultation with my cholesterol levels, I switched my allegiances to a more mature indulgence – whiskey.  So to get access to a distillery is a treat indeed. The distillery is a mysterious thing. Access to any modern production facilities is a rare event; for members of the public it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of the inner workings of any plant; health and safety laws, Lean production and a wariness about transparency meant that unless you have Bosco’s Magic Door, you aren’t getting inside. But one of the greatest distilleries in the world is changing all that.

Midleton Distillery’s Irish Whiskey Academy opened in 2013, and since then it has educated and entertained hundreds of drinks professionals, writers, bartenders, and sales people. The scope of the academy is now being widened to include ‘amateur enthusiasts’ – or ‘lushes’, as we are better known – like myself. The academy building fittingly sits between the historic distillery building – now home to the heritage centre – and the newer plant which is one of the largest, most efficient in the world, having just tweaked their processes to see a reduction in energy requirements per litre of pure alcohol by a whopping 20%.

The academy itself is a converted grain manager’s office, and our tutor was Dave McCabe, whose youth belies his incredible breadth of knowledge. I was on the course with whiskey bloggers, writers and industry insiders, and no matter how obscure or scientific the question, he knew the answer. With beautifully illustrated chalkboards in the classroom section of the facility, he brought us through the history of whiskey – nationally, locally and globally – as well as a refreshingly straightforward breakdown of the production of whiskey in east Cork.

We started with a walkthrough of the old distillery, learning about how whiskey was produced on that site for 200 years. We passed the distiller’s cottage, where Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett was born and raised, through the courtyard where former distillery manager Sandy Ross landed after an exploding pot still blew him out a window, leaving him flat on his back on the cobbles. He was given the rest of the day off, but showed up for work the next day. It takes hard men to make the hard stuff.

Back in the classroom we covered the raw materials, as well as the brewing and fermentation process, then it was on with the high-vis vests, phones into the lockers and off to the new plant, where we visited the grains depot, brewhouse, fermentation facility, and even had a stillhouse meeting with current Master Distiller Brian Nation. Brian is a busy man, who switches between the scientific demands of running one of the biggest   distilleries in the world and the promotional aspect of the job, sharing his knowledge and passion for whiskey around the globe. And he isn’t the only whiskey guru we had access to; we also met Kevin O’Gorman, a man who has so much energy and enthusiasm for his work that it’s hard to imagine him having the patience to watch a kettle boil. But patience he has. As Irish Distillers’s head of maturation, Kevin is charged with keeping watch over the thousands of barrels of alcohol as they slowly mature for the legally required minimum of three years – and often much longer. Kevin watches over the casks as they sleep through the years, monitoring room temperature as the wood of the staves slowly inhales and exhales the liquid, giving it colour, character and life. His domain is the warehouses packed with massive bourbon, port and sherry casks from around the world, loaded on pallets in lots of four, and then stacked seven high.

He watches on helpless as up to a percentage of each cask is lost to evaporation, an amount known as the angel’s share. As long as whiskey has been made, this has been part of the process. There is not way to stop it.

Another frustration comes in the repair of casks. Some of them simply can’t take the pressure of their sleeping brethren above, and begin to split. If the damage is small, and accessible to the master cooper, then it may be repaired. But if the split is bad, and the cask is behind or beneath many others, they simply have to let the pressure take its toll, and watch on as thousands of euro worth of whiskey seeps out. It’s can’t be an easy job.

We had a tasting with Kevin in one of the warehouses, number 42 to be precise, cracking open a port pipe, a sherry butt, and a bourbon cask. It’s hard to describe how special it was. There, in that vast modern cathedral, we filled glasses straight from the barrel, and stood there silently sipping, the only noise a sporadic beep from the security system off in the distance. The flavors of the whiskey was almost enough to make your ears pop.

Centuries ago, Irish monks copied the design of Moorish alembic stills to distill their ale into uisce beatha. Later, it was casked for storage, and whiskey as we know it was born. Not much has changed; the ingredient used by the epicurean alchemists in Midleton are the same – water, grain, wood and time. In a world obsessed with speeding up production, there is much to celebrate here. The race to the bottom in our demand for faster food and cheaper products has led to standards falling in both. Not so here – this may be a massive operation, but there is the same respect for the craft, the product and the consumer as there ever was. The academy is part of this celebration of tradition and technique – it has a level of openness, transparency and honesty that you will almost never encounter in large companies.

We rounded out the day with pot still tastings, then it was back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. Our lodgings were the aristocratic surrounds of the Castlemartyr Resort, a building whose history, like that of whiskey, is another rare blend of science and religion, having previously been home to Robert Boyle, of Boyle’s Law fame, and in later years becoming a Carmelite Monastery. Another part of the academy package is dinner in a premium restaurant – for us it was Ballymaloe, which so much has been written about I don’t need to add anything, other than it has to be experienced to be believed.

The following day we started with a coopering demonstration by master cooper Ger Buckley. Ger is a fifth generation cooper, and can take a barrel apart and put it back together in moments. He talked us through the craft and history of coopering, reinforcing the sense that little has changed in either the tools or the barrels themselves in centuries.

Afterwards we met with archivist Carol Quinn, who introduced us to some of the incredible characters, stories and history of Irish Distillers. She spoke about Paddy O’Flaherty, a consummate showman who understood the power of marketing and PR long before anyone else in the industry, to the point where the whiskey he sold took on his name – we even got to see the contract that allowed the company to use his name as a trademark. Carol is also recording the stories of the more recent characters, as she is recording an oral history of the formers workers in the Midleton plant, capturing all their stories and lore before it is all lost in the sands of time.

Then it was on to more tastings, site visits – including the spiritstore and casking facility – and lunch in the heritage centre, complete with ice cream cones served in Midleton Rare boxes.

Our last module was blending, where we were broken into teams of four and given four different types of spirits to make a single blend with. After much nose work, and even more tasting, my team finally came up with a blend of half sherry cask-aged pot still and half bourbon pot still. We even gave it a name – The Kurgan – which you will know from Scottish history as the Russian bad guy in Highlander. It even came with a tagline – ‘there can be only one’. Well, it was either that or ‘it will take your head off’.

We got samples of our blends to take home, and while I have yet to find the right occasion to enjoy mine, I have no doubt that the memories of an extraordinary few days in Midleton will last a lot longer. The lessons taken from the academy aren’t simply the science and the history of whiskey – it’s an appreciation of the drink itself, and what it means to the Irish people. Whiskey is liquid history. It records our highs and lows, our struggles and success, our innovation, creativity and strength of spirit. Its story is one of collisions and unions – between science and religion, alcohol and wood, empire and freedom, grain and water. The academy, nestled as it is between the past and future of Irish Distillers, teaches you how these elements blend together to make this most Irish of libations, its significance to our identity, and what is yet to come.

THE FACTS: A range of courses are available depending on the individual’s level of knowledge, with the first ‘Enthusiasts’ course taking place earlier this month. Participants have the opportunity to meet some of the distillery team, learn about brewing, fermentation, distillation and blending, watch a cooperage demonstration and enjoy a tutored whiskey tasting with one of the production Masters. As part of the package, participants will stay in five star accommodation, visit one of the area’s finest restaurants and at the end of the course, they will receive a personalised bottle of Irish whiskey.

One-day ‘Discoverer’ courses, for those who have minimal knowledge about Irish whiskeys but want to learn more, are available from February 2015 while four-hour afternoon courses are also available. See http://www.irishwhiskeyacademy.com/ for full details.