Everything is relative. When Jameson Black Barrel first launched as Jameson Select Reserve in the South African market, it featured the words ‘small batch’ on the label. Eyebrows shifted skyward amongst the whiskey commentariat, especially when they learned that it was grain spirit the term referred to, something Midleton produces oceans of. But relative to that exact scale, it was small batch. Their normal quantities are colossal, so anything other than a constant deluge of column spirit would technically be a small batch. We can argue semantics all day about what a consumer would perceive to be meant by the term, but that’s really not the fault of the Lemuel Gulliver of Irish whiskey production.
Just as small is a relative term, so too is rare. Curious to know exactly what it means in the context of Midleton Very Rare, I asked how much MVR was being released in this year’s batch. The figure you will find floating about the internet is that less than 2,500 nine-bottle cases of MVR are released each year – so a figure somewhere south of 22,500 bottles hits the market. You go back a few years (or even decades) and I would suggest that this really stretched the bounds of what anyone would classify as rare. Irish whiskey was still in a state of uneasy hibernation and while the MVR releases were always popular, seen as they were as the poshest and ergo – in the eyes of the perennially insecure Irish bourgeoisie – the best Irish whiskey, I doubt there was much of a dash to get them. Now, Irish whiskey is hot, and getting hotter. Collectors are collecting, flippers are flipping, and everyone wants to get their hands on MVR as soon as it appears. So how many bottles or cases are released? Here is your mercurial answer: Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard say that they ‘cannot share specific numbers’, but they told their PR person to let me know that ‘the volume available is in-keeping with previous releases’.
Now you can interpret that two ways – one, they don’t want to give an exact number because it might seem less than rare. Or, two, they don’t want to give a figure for the above reason, but also because it has been steadily climbing year on year and is now far higher than the alleged 2,500 nine-bottle cases. Think about it – if you had an annual release of 40%ABV NAS blended whiskey that had people falling over each other to get their hands on, of course you would like to shift as many units as possible (whilst still making sure not everyone got one – gotta keep the hunger out there).
That figure also seems low when you consider how wide this release is, covering as it does USA, Canada, Global Travel Retail, Europe, Australia, and Asia. I think they could rattle out five times that number worldwide and it still wouldn’t satisfy the ravenous demand for this iconic Irish whiskey. Although, this year’s makeover might have dampened some of that enthusiasm.
MVR is a collector’s whiskey. Released with the year proudly stamped on it, it was created with gifting and collecting in mind. So rebranding it – especially drastically – is something of a gamble. Yes it was overdue a refresh, given that since its launch in 1984 it had more or less looked the same, but the 2017 overhaul was less a refresh and more a complete redesign (or maybe those are the same thing). Irish whiskey was in its cups and maybe it was felt that the tired old MVR bottle and box needed something with a bit more pizazz. If I was a collector, I would have been less than amused – my 30+ bottles of MVR on the shelf would look completely different from their 2017 sibling. And now, six years later, the iconic wooden box that MVR came in since 1990 has been dumped in favour of something a little more in-keeping with the mood of the times. Per the press release: While honouring the traditions of the past, Midleton Very Rare 2023 also pays homage to the future as the brand prioritises sustainability and a commitment to the land from which it is created. For the first time, the new vintage will be presented in luxury recyclable secondary packaging*, replacing the wooden cabinet used since 1990.
Here is the new box:
Why yes, it does look like the 1950s wardrobe your mum brought back from the charity shop as she wanted to upcycle it so she covered it in flock wallpaper and now it looks really shoddy and nobody wants in their bedroom so it’s out in the shed and your dad keeps the paint tins in it.
Maybe the hardcore collectors will embrace it:
I’ve spoken to one or two other collectors who felt the same – that this new, greener packaging just isn’t as nice as the wood. But it’s not about nice, it’s about saving the planet, or at least trying to. In a lengthy piece on IrishWhiskeyMagazine.com Midleton master distiller Kevin O’Gorman explains the reasoning: “GPA Global who have produced this box have done a lifecycle analysis and a comparison between this and the old box. There has been a 50% reduction in weight which drives a lot of the other savings in fossil fuels, carbon and greenhouse gases emissions, and also water reductions.”
You’d also have to wonder if there was a reduction in cost as well, because if there was, it wasn’t reflected in the RRP (€210) this year.
The dilemma here is in what is expected of a super premium brand. Does anyone buying a premium whiskey actually care all that much about the planet? Something so decadent makes an uneasy bedfellow with any kind of ethical push. Wealth, opulence, luxury are all, by their very definitions, wasteful. Premium whiskey, like high fashion, private jets and mansions, isn’t about servicing needs but about wants, or to use a more lux term, desires. If I was paying €200+ for a whiskey then I would expect premium packaging and I wouldn’t care a whole lot about the planet, and the more premium the whiskey, the less of a hoot I would give. Frankly the relatively small numbers of premium whiskeys sold in comparison to blends means there are bigger fish to fry – so it should be noted that there has been a massive drive in whiskey generally, and Midleton in particular, to reduce and eliminate any waste from the production process across all brands.
But the greenification of packaging will have to continue and I wonder how many more vintages of MVR it will take before they get rid of the glass bottle and sell it to us in tetrapak or recyclable pouches. By then we may all have come to the conclusion that if we all truly cared about the health of this planet, or even our own personal health, we would probably stop drinking altogether.
Craft used to mean strength. The original word in German and Scandinavian languages meant power, or might, but it was in Old English that the meaning was expanded to include dexterity or a skill in art or science. Modern use – and abuse – of the term by food marketing firms has led to it becoming almost completely without meaning, but it still resonates. It suggests a more human product, as though somehow machines make soulless goods, and only the touch of a human hand can somehow magically imbue a product with a greater flavour, personality or depth of character.
All over the world, whiskey producers are angling to leverage the word craft to their advantage. Somehow the romance of small firms, individual brands, and the idea of the distilling auteur have embedded in the minds of consumers. But what does craft actually mean? That was the question posed by Alexandre Ricard in late 2014. The CEO of Pernod Ricard said he was struggling with the term, and questioning what defined a craft spirit – was it a question of scale, or of skill? The firm’s more recent explorations of the term included buying Smooth Ambler, thereby buying into two categories they were underexposed in – ‘craft’ spirits and bourbon. But even as he asked the question, Ricard already had plans to explore craft on his firm’s own terms, and on its own ground.
The micro distillery in Midleton opened with much fanfare in late 2015 just as the sales of Jameson really hit their stride, charging past the five million case mark. The micro distillery was a departure for Midleton, bringing operations back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades. It also eschewed automation and digital displays in favour of levers and dials. Since opening, it has served a dual purpose; as a showpiece for the tours of the distillery, and also as an incubation space for experimentation.
The sheer scale of the main plant is breathtaking, but not especially romantic. Its vast size also means that experimentation is a challenge, as any new methods or ingredients would see the company forced to commit to working with large quantities. Great if you have a success, not so much if you create a dud. So the microdistillery has become a breeding ground for experimentation, a fact celebrated recently under the umbrella of the Methods & Madness range. As part of that range’s launch, a select group of whiskey bloggers, journalists, influencers and one clueless local (me) were invited to the Irish Whiskey Academy for a tasting of some of their experiments with Master Distiller Brian Nation.
Like everything in life worth doing, creating new distillates in the microdistillery wasn’t the easiest task, given that the wash is still being made in the main plant, a fact they hope to rectify by building a brewhouse within the microdistillery building: “We’re hopeful – we’re applying in the next year for some form of brewing and it’s a little bit up in the air at the moment whether we try to put a brewing facility up above and send the wash down into the microdistillery, or whether we install a full brewhouse down into the micro,” Nation explains.
“Preferentially we would like to see the brewhouse down there but what it does mean is that you have to bring a lot of grain handling down to the building and that brings its own issues around ATEX and dust zones. We have a building alongside the micro that we need to see if we can house all of that, but that would be the ideal for us.
“Because then you have the whole place compact in one area, you can play around with your cereals – we spoke a little while ago about playing around with different yeast types and you really have the opportunity to explore what is possible from the micro.”
But main plant’s brewhouse is not micro – it is macro.
“That is part of the problem. So you are taking a brew through a mash filter and putting just one or two into a fermenter, but then you have to make sure that you get the wort up above the cooling coils of the fermenter, because if you don’t then you actually kill it all off, so it is actually quite difficult at the moment.
“What we’re doing is to try and use as much of the time available to us without having the brewing capabilities, so hopefully by the end of next year we should have something.
“When we had opportunities in the main plant we tried different cereals, and they are the next whiskeys that we are going to taste. The first thing we’re going to taste is what we were making when we were in the microdistillery this morning, which is a barley and malt mash – about 60% barley and 40% malt.
“If you were to compare it to the pot still distillate that we produce up in the main plant, it has a lot of those characteristics, but for us it tends to have a little bit more character in it, it has a bit more spice and more fruitiness and for me I tend to get a little bit of clove and liquorice coming through it as well. This is at 40%; obviously we run the pot stills down there at 84.4% but we watered it down as we didn’t want to overwhelm you.
“For a new make spirit – and this is coming back to the triple distillation process but also coming back to the use of unmalted barley – you have creaminess on the mouthfeel as well, and I feel it’s good to showcase to people that you get that creaminess in the new spirit as well, it’s not a really harsh whiskey to take, even thought it’s a new distillate.”
Next up was the rye. Typically associated with the northeastern United States, rye whiskey is undergoing a global resurgence after almost completely disappearing during and after Prohibition. A typical rye whiskey will be at least 51% rye, with malted barley and corn. Midleton’s take is slightly different: “So this is a mash bill of rye and malted barley so we effectively replaced the barley with rye and we put it through our batch brewing process above, fermented it and brought it down here where it was distilled.
“It’s typically about 60/40 (rye/malt). What we found from the distillate is that on the nose it seems a harder note coming through it, a little less creamy. You know sometimes the way sometimes when you taste something it brings back a memory rather than a scientific taste? For me this reminds me of some boiled sweets that you used to get – the rhubarb and custard ones. But you can see – this has gone through the same process and it actually is quite different (from the pot still spirit) in taste and flavour, there’s still the spiciness there as well, and for me you tend to get that malty characteristic coming through as well.”
Midleton are obviously keen on this spicy new distillate, as they have committed to another aspect of the craft movement – the idea of grain to glass traceability.
“We’re quite excited about the rye. We have sown a hundred and 60 acres of rye in Enniscorthy – two different types of rye, and that should be harvested in September of this year, and the plan is to use that for distillation. We’re quite excited about that – because we saw how good this rye turned out. And were actually looking at doing this on our grain side, our column side.”
As for what a rye spirit from a column still would go into: “It’s going to be something new – we have a few ideas but we’re not going to divulge that at the moment; but effectively what we’re going to do, or at least what we are aiming for, is that instead of going for the 60/40 split it would be 100% rye.”
While they haven’t used a malted rye yet, they may in the future depending on the yields from the harvest in the autumn. Part of the narrative of the foundation of the microdistillery was the discovery of a lost recipe book belonging to John Jameson II. So did Jameson The Second have any rye recipes from 100 years ago?
“There are some John Jameson recipes that show an inclusion of rye in it so that’s one of the reasons that we actually started looking at rye, but now we are looking at different ways of doing a full rye just to see what it’s like.”
As for the taste of the rye distillate, it differs slightly from its pot still mixed mash cousin: “What I like about what we are producing here is that even on the taste – because of the triple distillation and the smoothness of the triple distillation they are quite palatable even as a distillate on their own. What we have here is straight off the stills, but what we have done with some of it is put it straight into casks – we kept very little of the distillate, the last of the distillate is effectively gone today what we have tried to do as well is to see how well they are going to mature – we are laying out stocks in normal barrels but we are also trying to put them into smaller barrels because you tend to get a faster maturation time there and it gives you a better feel for how maturation is going to progress on a bigger scale as well so we are quite happy with that at the moment.
“The other side of it as well is that when we – and again this is a learning process for us – when you decide to take something like rye into your plant and you try to mill it using equipment for barley, if you have a hammer mill, it’s amazing the impact it has on your capacity and the speed at which you can mill material through and that was a big learning curve for us because you assume a hammer mill will do what it needs to for any grain but depending on the type of grain, depending on the density of the grain, depending on the size of the grain, it’s going to have an impact, so we are seeing that as we go along as well.”
But if the rye was a challenge to distill, the next sample was the fruits of some very intensive labours. Oats may make an incredibly healthy breakfast cereal, having been recently proved to aid gut and heart health, but they did little good to Brian Nation’s health as he struggled to distill them.
Historically oats would have been used in brewing in the Middle Ages, but very few distillers use them to make whiskey, save Silver Western Oat whiskey from High West – another craft distillery that was on Pernod’s shopping list in the run up to the Smooth Ambler acquisition, before High West ultimately succumbed to Constellation Brands.
As Nation discovered, there is a reason few people distill with oats.
“What we found with the oats is that they are a nightmare to process through the plant because it has such an amount of husk on it and it is quite a light grain, it was unbelievable what we went through, when you have gristbins that are filling up with half – say we took six tonnes into a gristbin of barley, and the gristbin was full, three tonnes of oats would fill the same space, and they were choking the mills. We thought this would be easy – it’s simple, it is such an easy grain to deal with – and then we tried to process and brew and it was quite difficult. Again, another learning curve.
“I would probably say that we are fairly unique in this (the use of oats) at the moment. Normally what you would have found is that oats would have been put into a mash bill at a very small percentage for a lauter tun or a mash tun because what it did was it aided filtration.
“It didn’t really add anything to the flavour at the time but it was more of an aid for ensuring that your filter beds had enough of a grist of oats in it to allow the drainage to come though, whereas we are using it now at a much higher percentage to see what the impact on the flavor is. We were pleasantly surprised with it.
“This is a mash bill of malted barley and oats, again replacing the barley with the oats so again it’s a 60/40. What we felt with the flavour from this is that it tends to come across a little bit lighter but you do tend to have this oatmeal, cereal-bar notes coming through. Still has creaminess – not the same level of fruit as the rye or pot still, but still a quite interesting distillate. A dryer finish, and that cereal note following through but again you can see the difference that the cereal has made on the overall distillate side.”
Of course, the three distillates were just a sample of what has been taking place in the microdistillery: “At this stage I think we have 11 types of distillate that we have produced. Not all of them fantastic, but we are seeing how they mature because sometimes you might produce a distillate that that on its own may be too heavy or whatever, but when you put it into a barrel and mature it a little and see what the impact is there; it might actually combine very well. That’s what we have done with anything we have produced at the moment.”
And while they have used traditional-size casks, Nation explains how they also use micro-barrels for their micro distillate.
“Three to five-litre barrels. We get them specially made. It sounds small, but you have to remember the volume of distillate that we are producing down here compared to up there (in the main plant). The maximum output for this plant is 50,000LA on a five day operation a year, obviously if you went on a 24 hour period you would double that or maybe get it to 120,000LA. For us to be able to put away some of it in normal barrels and then use the three or five litre barrels to see how it gets on.”
Along with planning to create a brewhouse at the site of the microdistilery, they are also considering a maturation space in the same historic buildings, meaning that you have the full cycle of whiskey making in one historic place. As for the main distillery, they just took delivery of another three massive pot stills from Forsyths. Nation talks about the stills and how they were so large they had to be shaped by hand, as the machines could not accommodate their extraordinary size. He talks about being in Rothes and seeing one coppersmith inside the still and another outside, hammering every spot on the surface of the stills. “That is skill; that is craft,” he says.
He is right: Craft isn’t about size, but about skill. The craft of Midleton Distillery goes back to the traditional meaning of the word – strength in art, science and technology. The chronophobia of the whiskey scene – boosted by over-eager marketing departments – has led to a situation where a stunning feat of modern engineering like Midleton is treated like a mild embarrassment. It’s an attitude that brings to mind the quote from Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur L’Art at the start of Walter Benjamin’s Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction:
“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
Valéry wrote those words in 1931, but they might as well have been written today, as they express the same, timeless fear – that scientific advancement means the death of the soul. The team in Midleton have shown that it is their technological might that enables them to experiment and find new ways to practice an age-old skill. As the Jameson juggernaut rolls on, it will be in the trials and errors of the microdistillery that some of the most interesting work takes place. As noted Jameson lover Samuel Beckett wrote: No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
You just can’t go wrong with Powers. It is my drink of choice on the rare occasion that I actually get out for the night. It’s easily found in most pubs, is reasonably priced, and – to my palate – packs a bigger punch than it’s more popular sibling, Jameson. I always think of Indian food when I see how the average consumer views whiskey – most people think Indian food is basically varying degrees of ‘curry’. Similarly, many people think all whiskey is basically just Jameson, with minor variations. It’s only once you start to explore either that you realise a whole world, previously hidden to you, was there all along.
Jameson, like many blends, is the tikka masala or korma of the whiskey world – the most common introduction to the field, by virtue of its mellow smoothness and accessibility. Powers is probably the dopiaza of the field – with more pot still whiskey, it carries a little more spice and an extra dimension than the world’s most popular Irish whiskey. Powers is a great next step into the whiskey world, but while I love it’s oldschool styling, the younglings might be put off by something that exhibits some of the visual keys of a tube of Euthymol. So pappa’s got a brand new bag:
Not just a slick new label, but some lovely glasswork, as befitting the elder statesperson of Irish distilling.
Here are the official details:
An Irish Icon Awakes
Introducing the new look Powers Gold Label and Powers Three Swallow Release
With over 200 years of heritage distilled into each bottle, the new look Powers Gold Label is as definitive now as it always was – a pot still style whiskey of superior quality and undisputed heritage since 1791.
While the aesthetic has changed, everything that makes Powers Gold Label the quintessential Irish whiskey has stayed exactly the same. True to the Pot Still style of the original distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin, Powers Gold Label is still triple distilled and matured in specially selected oak casks bursting with the same wonderfully complex and spicy flavor.
Powers reputation for excellence and innovation placed them at the forefront of Irish whiskey. In 1866, John Power and Son began bottling their own whiskey, which was unheard of before in Ireland, as it was usually sold by the cask. A gold label was entrusted on the bottle to signify premium quality and guarantee it had come directly from the John’s Lane Distillery, earning its name Powers Gold Label by loyal customers
The new look Powers Gold Label bottle will be officially unveiled at an exclusive event in Dublin in a specially created pop-up bar on Mercer Street, Dublin 2 on October 6th. The event will also give guests an exclusive preview and tasting of a brand new Powers Single Pot Still Whiskey expression, Powers Three Swallow Release ahead of its official launch later in the year.
As it enters the next phase in its iconic 224 year history, Powers Three Swallow Release, distilled and aged to perfection, is the 21st century embodiment of the traditional pure pot still whiskey style that has made Powers famous the world over.
Powers Gold Label is available in all leading on and off trade outlets, RRP €29.49
The new look carries a lot of the feel of the (incredible) John’s Lane Release:
POWERS Gold Label 700ml
John’s Lane Release
It’s interesting to see Irish Distillers doing things like this – there are going to be a lot of competitors in the market over the next decade, so they are really donning the warpaint. Modernising a classic is a brave move, but shows they are confident that they will reach new consumers rather than alienating an older generation who may not initially recognise their beloved brand of yore. It also builds a strong visual link between the various members of the Powers family – be it entry-point blend, or luxuriant single pot still.
Speaking of old people: I recently got some wonderful agitprop in the post:
Yes, I should have dusted the bottle before I took the photos, but you get the idea – a rock-solid Irish classic has got a well-deserved makeover. Also, this confirms that I am officially in the pocket of Big Whiskey and cannot be trusted. Vote IDL! Impeach Cooley! Etc!
There are things that I miss about being in a newsroom. The flow of insider information, the unprintable story behind the story, the kernels of truth you occasionally stumble across. It is like an addiction – once gone from it, you feel the withdrawal, you realise that you are now on the outside. But that isn’t necessarily the worst place to be, and definitely not in today’s media, where low sales are driving a race to the bottom, with everyone now chasing MailOnline and Buzzfeed’s business models of listicles, flesh, rage-bait and endless repetition.
However, one of the best aspects of journalism is the access it gives you; it places you in a position of extreme privilege – you get into places you shouldn’t, get offered things you don’t need, and generally can live a larger life than your wages would suggest. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Two years ago I was sent to an event in my hometown distillery called The Housewarming. It was being held to celebrate the massive expansion of the local distillery, but beyond that I didn’t know much else. I’m not sure what I expected, but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of it. Walking through the arch into the main courtyard behind the old distillery was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly blooms into Technicolor, or the first time Aldous Huxley dropped acid; I was, like Adam, seeing all of creation for the first time. After The Housewarming, I was hooked, and have been writing about – and loving – whiskey ever since. And so it was that I was one of only a few journalists to be invited to both the launch of the new micro distillery and celebration of Jameson’s rocketing sales – five million cases plus in 12 months.
The events in the distillery are pretty special – almost everything they do is delivered in epic widescreen, and this was no different. The first part of the evening was the launch of the microdsitillery, which has seen distilling return to the old distillery site for the first time in 40 years. In fact, this year marked a triple celebration for IDL – parent firm Pernod Ricard turned 40, the new Midleton distillery turned 40, and Master Distiller Brian Nation also hit the big four-O (I also turned 40 in August, but since I was on the dole, celebrations were muted).
Over the past couple of years, an old storehouse was renovated and turned into a small scale distillery – but one which was still larger than many of the new independent distilleries being set up around the country in the past 24 months.
After a drinks reception in the courtyard, we were ushered in to hear IDL CEO Anna Malmhake, Tánaiste Joan Burton and ‘micro-distiller’ (note: not an actual term) Karen Cotter speak about the new venture. Anna acted as MC, and Karen spoke first, giving a speech about her path to this point, about the distillery, her mentors and what the future holds. Given her young age – just 24 – it was remarkable to hear her speak with such clarity and self-confidence. It reinforced my view that she will be a very bright star in Irish whiskey.
Then it was the Tánaiste’s turn. Deputy Burton spoke about how her ancestors were coopers, having grown up near Bow Street distillery, and also about how important it is to have gender balance in the workplace – be it at the cabinet table, or in the distilling world. Then it was over to the stills to switch them on, one by one, at which point they lit up in sequence.
Here is some low-grade audio of part of Karen Cotter and Joan Burton’s speeches:
Whilst there I chatted to local politicians Deputy Sandra McLellan of SF, David Stanton of FG and fellow journalist Tomás Clancy of the SBP. It was great to finally meet Tomás, as we both used to be part of the same media group, and also because he is a great ambassador for whiskey. I had seen him speak at Ballymaloe LitFest with Dave Broom and he was great, really knowledgeable without beating you over the head with it. Top guy, and the SBP is a great paper.
I also chatted to Richard Forsyth of the legendary pot still makers Forsyths – the Rolls Royce of post still makers. I had met him at the Spirit Of Speyside gala in May so it was nice to meet him on my home turf. Speyside is incredible – if you ever get a chance to visit there during the whisky festival, do so. You won’t regret it. The festival is one of the rare occasions when you can get a tour of the massive plant in Rothes. As a Scottish engineering firm their main business is oil and gas – which occupies about 300 of their staff, while the distilling operation has 60 or so working in it. There is an impressive drone flyover of the facility to give you an idea of what they do.
During the Spirit of Speyside festival the town also hosts a tattie bogle contest – local businesses create scarecrows and hang them off buildings or in windows. It is goddam terrifying, like something from Tales Of The Unexpected or The League Of Gentlemen.
Also there was Bernard Walsh, head of the IWA and one of the ‘real deal’ distillers in Ireland at the moment. He is the man behind Writer’s Tears, to my mind one of the stand-out Irish whiskeys, not just for its fresh aesthetic and great name, but just because it is a great drink. Bernard’s new pot stills arrived from Rothes last week, so it’s an exciting time for him, the culmination of many years of hard work.
Then it was off to the buses to be ferried down to Warehouse 11, a functioning storage facility that they had transformed into an incredible venue for the evening. About 350 guests filed in, greeted with Jameson whiskey sours, and then on a massive screen we were shown DJ Kormac talking about a commission he was given to create a track from the sounds of the distillery. He talked about his methods as they cut in footage from barley fields, and then he and singer Vivienne Long took to the stage to unveil their track. No wonder he is so skinny with all the frenetic work he does behind his electronics.
Then the screen lifted and we were in the venue proper, with names and tables assigned on a screen. Somehow I managed to locate mine, right up the front near the stage, perfect if i got carried away and wanted to start a moshpit or possibly stage dive onto some marketing people. The meal itself was spectacular, these massive outside events mean you need to set up mobile kitchens in the middle of nowhere and bus in an army of wait staff and chefs. Sometimes this can result in sub standard food, but not in this case; every part of the meal was incredible, really interesting food, beautiful, inspired presentation, and wait staff who were incredibly patient with my increasingly terrible banter: ‘Still or sparkling water sir?’ ‘Sparkling – LIKE MESELF’. I wonder how many times that poor person had to hear that jape in a single night. I was sat next to a member of the Irish Whiskey Association, which much like its Scottish counterpart is mainly involved in protection of intellectual copyright and maintaining the integrity of the Irish Whiskey brand. They make sure that you don’t end up with some low grade hooch from outside the country being passed off as ‘ye olde Oirish whiskey’ as it will devalue the entire category.
Also sat next to me was the Jameson Ambassador to Tokyo, a 23 year old Arts graduate from Wicklow, who possessed the rare (Irish) skill of being able to speak fluent Japanese. He spoke about his work, his projected aims and the brand’s target demographics. It was an amazing insight into a job that seems like it might be akin to being Duffman from The Simpsons, but is actually a lot more sophisticated, nuanced and involves a lot less booze than you would think. He has his work cut out for him – in a fast-paced and somewhat alien cultural landscape (one with a fantastic indigenous whisky scene), trying to attach yourself to the zeitgeist will be akin to catching a bullet between your teeth. But it will still be some incredible adventure for a young man.
Throughout the event there was incredible live music on stage – Lisa Hannigan, an orchestra playing popular classics (and grunge), and a harpist who would give Tony Iommi a run for his money.
After dinner we were treated to three new whiskeys from the distillery, each curated by a master – Master Cooper Ger Buckley’s the Cooper’s Croze, Master Distiller Brian Nation’s Distiller’s Safe and Master Blender Billy Leighton’s Blender’s Dog, three exclusive blends named after the respective tools of the masters’ trades.
We were asked to sample them, discuss and compare, which we duly did. Then the massive screens flared into life, and a short film about the trio began, showing them getting ready in their various domains, which then cut to a live feed of them walking into through the massive doors of Warehouse 11, all conducted to the strains of Arcade Fire. We toasted them, had a dram, and Hermitage Green took the stage, playing into the night.
CEO of Pernod Ricard, Alex Ricard, also spoke at the event. Last year he talked about the definition of craft and what it means. It has become increasingly obvious that craft, artisan and small batch are products of marketing teams and have lost much of their meaning. However, the consumer is getting canny – Templeton Rye was hit with a massive class action lawsuit over claims their whiskey was small batch, when actually it was sourced from a large-scale production facility. So when Midleton created a micro-distillery, they made sure to avoid the computer terminal controls you see in larger facilities, and instead opted for manual controls. The same goes for Ballindalloch in Speyside – they deliberately went for full manual controls to keep a down-home feel to their single estate distillery.
Alex Ricard posed the question – ‘what is craft?’ Is it the centuries that Irish people have been making whiskey, is it the incredibly history of the drink on this island, and at what point does a facility stop being ‘craft’? Is it a question of size and scale, is it to do with technology? Is there less craft in a large plant than in a garage-based operation? How is that so? Can a multi-national own a craft distillery – is it a question of economics? Most modern food and drink operations operate like pharma plants – is there a chilling effect in this system? Would you enjoy your drink more if you thought some chap made it in his shed? Or is it simply a question of aura, of exclusivity, of rareness? As a species we tend to hate the modern age, and yearn for some pre-industrial idyll that never existed; a simpler time when the noble farmer toiled the land before going home to read Chaucer by candlelight and die of natural causes at 40. We are bemused by the trainspotters and their passion for engineering – but not by people who go to art galleries. Modern engineering is a beautiful thing – be it the micro distillery or the bigger sibling that produces much of the world supply of Irish whiskey.
Mr Ricard also spoke about how everyone present on the night had a personal connection to Jameson – they have their pet names for it, their favourite way to drink it, their stories about how they started getting into whiskey. The jaded cynic in me might raise my eyes, but in a way he was right. Like Jameson, I am from Dublin originally, but spent the last 40 years in east Cork. My mother was a 19 year old from Sherriff Street in the north inner city, who grew up close to the old premises of Haig And Haig, and a few doors down from St Laurence O’Toole Church, supposedly built over old whiskey stores, which has led to the crypts still carrying a lingering hint of the angel’s share. She put me up for adoption, and after six weeks I was brought home by my mum and dad. After a brief stint in Kerry, we moved to Midleton, where my dad worked in the bank that lies just downriver from the distillery.
I grew up in a house overlooking the distillery, halfway between there and the new maturation sites in Dungourney. As a kid I swam and fished in the same river that they make all those incredible whiskeys from, and later I went to school just over the wall from the distillery in Midleton College. If you ever visit the Garden Stillhouse, see if you can find the sinkhole nearby, which leads to the underground stream from which the distillery takes some of its water. The stream travels under the wall and into the school grounds, and over the years pupils used to dare each other to travel through the pitch black cave network and up into the distillery – despite the fact that for some of the 50 yards or so you would be chest-deep in ice-cold water. My parents sent me to this expensive, private school – and they worked hard to pay for it. My dad loved whiskey – the first article I wrote for the Irish Examiner was about The Housewarming, but also about my dad, and in it I told this story: When I was about 10, my mother had a massive brain haemorrhage. She was given 24 hours to live. My dad went to the hospital chapel and made a deal with God – he would give up his beloved whiskey if mum pulled through. She duly did, and he hasn’t touched a drop since. She passed away nine years ago now, but he still won’t drink it as he says ‘a deal is a deal’.
It sounds like bunkum, but I like this story because it tells you the kind of guy my dad is. Part of my love of whiskey comes from him, and from suddenly having that strange epiphany when you realise that your dad is a great guy. He grew up in an Ireland that has thankfully almost completely disappeared – his dad used to come home, eat dinner, then go to the pub. His father once told him about the hilarity among his friends when they saw a friend of their’s pushing a buggy. Fathers back then earned the money and that was about it. The kids were women’s work. But my dad was always there for me, as I crashed headlong through life. Despite the fact that I often made terrible choices, he supported me no matter what. Whiskey to me is a symbol of all that is great about him – of being a good father, a good husband, a good human being. It represents the slow joy of growing old, of maturity. It’s about the simple pleasure of a mind-unclenching, blood-warming drink whilst surrounded by your family as they bicker about X Factor or try to figure out what the hell was going on in Age Of Ultron. It’s a celebration of making peace with this world. I have enjoyed constant privilege – from the luck of being a journalist to the childhood I had. I went down Sherriff Street for the first time this summer to see the old family home, to see where at least part of me is from. The area is a ghetto, fenced in by the ugly opulence of the IFSC on one side and, on the other, a canal, which once brought so much wealth and industry to the area, now filled with rubbish. While we were down there a child shot at the car with a BB gun. We didn’t stick around for long. It was a sobering reminder of how lucky I am, in all aspects of my life. I have tasted amazing whiskeys, seen amazing things and met amazing people over the last few years, and the event in Midleton last month was a reminder of all my good fortune – of growing up in the home of Irish whiskey, in a house filled with love and unopened bottles of Jameson, because, as my dad says, a deal is a deal.
Lawson Whiting, Brown-Forman’s chief brands officer, told DI the company’s family structure enabled it to “think long term” in the Irish whiskey category and with sustained investment over “20, 30, or 40 years” build Slane Whiskey in to a “global brand”.
Brown-Forman has experience distributing Irish whiskey in the US, as the former distributor of Bushmills in the market.
Whiting said Brown-Forman had “looked at mothballed distilleries” in Ireland before announcing in June to create its own distillery in the grounds of Slane Castle.
Brown-Forman’s first release will be from bought-in Irish whisky stocks, with Whiting arguing that consumers would not be confused by a change in taste profile when the Slane-produced whiskey is released in a few years. “We will be making lots of different styles of whiskey; consumers love to try other things,” he said.
Hell yeah. Provided ‘other things’ isn’t code for ‘shitty RTDs’. In which case, no. Also, bleurgh.