It’s Good Friday, and West Cork Distillers is going through an audit for its organic certification. John O’Connell is practically running he is walking so fast. All is going well with the audit; O’Connell seems pleased. Despite breaking the land speed record as he moves from room to room, he still finds the time to show me around. Having visited the distillery 12 months before my Easter visit, my expectation was that little would have changed. I was wrong. The notion that life moves slower down west is disproved by WCD, which seems to be accelerating its already rapid expansion.
In one lab they have a pilot plant alongside analytical equipment, meaning they can work on experimental washes and play around with locally-sourced fruit yeasts taken from Gougane Barra woods – O’Connell is all about fermentation, and is vocal about the role it plays in determining a spirit’s flavour profile.
One of the newer pieces of equipment dreamed up and built from scratch in WCD is an electrodialysis machine. They can analyse new make, isolate components that they might not be happy with, and run the liquid through the dialysis machine to cleanse the spirit of them.
But while they are relentlessly pushing toward a scientific utopia, they are also pushing for greater transparency in their barrels, now only sourcing from named bodegas, eschewing non-disclosure agreements in favour of greater clarity and information for the consumer. There are few people who WCD refuse to work with, and the firms they do create drinks for run from the aristocratic Baring family behind Lambay Whiskey, to UK TV star (and west Cork man) Graham Norton. But WCD have another project underway, one which may cause ripples in the industry.
Some distilleries here are offering cask programmes as a way of generating some revenue in order to offset the massive cost of getting up and running. It is a great idea – you buy a cask and feel part of a distillery’s story. Some distilleries are charging seven to ten grand a cask. But talk to anyone who has bought casks in Scotland and they will tell you that over there prices are far more reasonable (and thus more realistic as an investment). But with people using Dingle’s founding fathers five grand buy-in as a baseline, the only way is up, and up, and up. This meant that for most of us, cask ownership was just a pipe dream.
Enter then the West Cork Whiskey Co-operative, a small group gathered through word of mouth, who were given the opportunity to buy some of the 5,000 casks released for sale by West Cork Distillers. Some have bought one or two, some have bought many more. And I, dear reader, bought nine, because although I am of meager means, my dual loves of both whiskey and bargains mean that this was an offer I could not refuse: The co-op offered a 200 litre first fill bourbon barrel filled with grain spirit for 888 euro, single pot still for 990 euro, or single malt for 1,086 euro. I bought one grain, four pot and four malt. One is for my godchild, four for each of my kids, and the remaining ones may end up getting bottled at some point (thus the grain). It is a bit of madness, and a bit of fun, and I don’t expect to make any money. Whiskey is a playground for me, not a place to graft.
So here comes the economics; the annual storage and insurance in year one, as well as the administrative cost of running the co-op, is included in the entry price. With a modest price appreciation of 2-5% per annum on current market valuations for aged whiskey, investors could generate 12-15% investment returns per annum over a three-to-10-year period. The co-op will act as the legal trustee and the registered tenant in WCD’s bonded warehouse, and the investor is the beneficial owner and is allocated a share in the co-op: One member, one vote. There is also the online trading platform which offers the ability to bid on other people’s whiskey or auction your existing whiskey to interested buyers. Loss of liquid in the casks beyond evaporation (2.5% per annum) or damage due to fire etc., is fully insured at the purchase price. As for tariffs and Brexit, WCD are a global business with diversified revenue streams so they are insulated better than most.
O’Connell’s approach to this is much like his approach to business in general – be fair. Of course, there is also a bonus for WCD – they get an injection of cash, and will always have the option to buy casks back from the co-op should they need to. After their massive expansion in the past 12 months, they may need to – four warehouses sit at the end of the Marsh Road site (foundations needed to be set 15 metres underground, as the road lives up to its name), while they are finally throwing open the doors to the public, with a sizeable visitors centre, which houses their new distillery, which comprises of three pot stills, one hybrid and one column.
If WCD make all this look easy, these stills are a reminder that it isn’t – all came from planned distilleries that were abandoned, including the stills from the Niche/Quiet Man. Setting up a distillery is an expensive business – WCD exists largely through sheer force of will, and they still embody that Mad Max spirit of innovation and invention, making any equipment they can, and sourcing everything else in as cost-effective a way as possible (they even have ouzo stills, imported to Skibbereen after they were spotted by a staff member on holiday in Greece).
WCD have become a force to be reckoned with – their output of four million litres per annum may be dwarfed by the likes Midleton (100 million LPA); or even their main competitors in the wholesale market, Great Northern, who boast a remarkable 11 million LPA, but WCD have something that others do not – diversity. No parent firm, column and pot distillation, on-site maturation facilities, a bottling hall, and contract activity. As Darwin noted, it is not the strongest that survives, but the most adaptive to change. WCD were created out of necessity, invention and desperation – they will try almost anything (hard kombucha, anyone?), create just about any spirit they can if they find a market for it.
WCD also has a four-pronged revenue stream – their own branded products; bulk spirits and fermentates; contract manufacturing and wholesales. Domestically, they deal with the big supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes, Tesco and the Musgrave Group, who own SuperValu and Centra. They also have multiple contracts overseas, and are looking to expand further. They also bought out the Halewood stake in the firm, so the two McCarthy cousins and O’Connell are now the majority shareholders. They achieved all this with no marketing team – which, in the whiskey world, is possibly the most startling fact of all.
It is early days for the co-op – but if WCD can do it, why not others? Do we want Irish whiskey to be some elitist members-only affair where only those of significant means can afford to buy a cask (or a bottle)? Is it right that some brands are charging seven grand a cask, or 300 euro for a 16 year old whiskey? More importantly, is it good for the category? We need places like WCD to create equilibrium. With the co-op, people can get a sense of how much whiskey actually costs, rather than what someone decides it is worth. Obviously I’m going to roll back on this in spectacular fashion in 16 years when I release my own bottling for a grand a pop, but until then we need to calm the fuck down. An overpriced, overheated market draws the wrong kinds of entities into the marketplace.
If you are interested in buying a cask for a reasonable price, shop around – there are plenty of places that ought to cut you a deal, and at least now punters can say well, WCD charge a grand, why are you charging five times that (or more)? As for the co-op, membership is closed, but it may re-open again in the future. Chances are that if it does, it will be done in typical WCD fashion – quietly, fairly, and with as little fanfare as possible.
What is single pot still whiskey? Is it the past, is it the future? Is it a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, an Irish Irish whiskey, a category within the category? Is it our secret weapon, or is it a marketing trick? Is it a common style, found around the world, a simple mixed mash spirit, a dumbed down single malt? It is a bastard malt, a mongrel? Is it a testament to Irish ingenuity and a spirit born of oppression – is it a flower that grew from ruins? Is it all these things or none, and, most importantly, is it the next step?
When I think single malt, I think of Scotland. There are many exceptional single malts from around the world, and many mediocre ones from Scotland, but it is still there – a century of marketing has linked the concept of the single malt to one nation above all others. But once upon a time they used a mixed mash too. As single pot obsessive Willie Murphy noted, there is this quote the second edition of Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing:
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tax on ale, beer and whiskey (which was still referred to as aqua vitae in all statutes of the period) was essentially doubled, and it was estimated that this provision would yield £384 000 in revenue (Statute 1661, Car II, c.128). To raise this huge sum there must have been several large legitimate stills in existence, such as those of John Haig & Co., who claim that a Robert Haig established their business in 1627 (Anon., 1914). What is interesting, from a technical viewpoint, is the fact that these taxes were imposed not only on malted barley but also on spirit ‘not made of malt’. Other chronicles of this period similarly allude to spirit being made from a mixture of grains, such as oats, barley and wheat (Smith, 1776) as well as malt. So even from the earliest times some whiskey was being distilled from unmalted grain, and not all malt was made from barley. The malt tax introduced in 1701, for example, states that duty shall be paid: ‘upon all Malt, ground or unground, whether the same shall be made of Barley, or any other Corn or Grain whatsoever’ (Statute 1701, 12 &13 William III, c.5).
That Smith they are referencing is none other than the father of capitalism Adam Smith, him of ‘greed is good’/Gordon Gekko fame. In the brutal tome more commonly known as The Wealth Of Nations, Smith notes:
Malt is consumed not only in the brewery of beer and ale, but in the manufacture of wines and spirits. If the malt tax were to be raised to eighteen shillings upon the quarter, it might be necessary to make some abatement in the different excises which are imposed upon those particular sorts of low wines and spirits of which malt makes any part of the materials. In what are called malt spirits it makes commonly but a third part of the materials, the other two- thirds being either raw barley, or one-third barley and one-third wheat.
Smith wrote that back in 1776, and then there’s this from super sleuth Charlie Roche:
So before single malt knew what it was, it was a mixed mash whisky not unlike our own supposedly uniquely Irish style.
Single pot still can never compete with single malt, but it can become something else. There are obviously obstacles, because it’s not just a complex whiskey, it is also a complicated one. Referring to it as a mixed mash whiskey is actually a welcome simplification – single pot still is a confusing name, as it reflects not the style, nor the key element of the mashbill, but rather the device used to distill it. Also, as they are not allowed to call it ‘pure pot still’ anymore, it now sounds like it is only distilled once, or made using only one still. For consumers approaching the SPS category for the first time, there is a lot of baggage to get your head around. Then there is the requisite explanations of the corn laws, because every whiskey should come with a history lesson that focuses on taxation of grain. But SPS has genuine heritage, and this is where it gets even more complicated.
Peter Mulryan knows a thing or two about whiskey. He went from writing books on the subject to being the public face of Irish Distillers Ltd SPS promos and is now the driving force behind Blackwater Distillery. Mulryan has blogged about his dissatisfaction with the technical file – the document that controls what Irish whiskey is and how it is made – and has started making pot still whiskey from old mashbills, as the more recent rules mean that SPS is what IDL say it is. Mulryan notes that in all the old historical SPS mashbills he has come across, not one meets the standards set out by the technical file.
Published five years ago, the technical file was written by the large whiskey producers in Ireland at a time when a boom was looming and the finer points of the category needed to be locked down. The result is a document defining SPS to suit IDL’s in-house style – imagine if Diageo legally declared that Guinness is the only style of stout allowed by law, which, quite frankly, sounds like exactly the kind of thing Diageo would do.
You can read the file itself here, or David Havelin’s excellent dissection of it here and here, but IDL’s influence is all over it, including references to SPS being made ‘usually in large stills’ and even allowing for a little bit of column still distillation in there, which is clearly a gob in the face of history. But SPS as a style was resuscitated and kept alive by IDL, so little wonder that they felt such a sense of ownership over it that they simply went ahead and redefined it.
And just so I can play devil’s advocaat, I would make this point – it has been five or six years since the big producers sat down to write the tech file, and a lot has changed. Grain has become a major talking point, with words like provenance and terroir becoming part of the global discussion, so one more question before I launch into an actual whiskey review – is it not possible that IDL themselves would change the technical file definition of SPS, given how restrictive it is? Are their hands not tied by the file, now that they have a micro-distillery where they can compete with the likes of Blackwater? Would they not wish to loosen the ball-gag on SPS and let it breathe a little? Is there not an archive filled with old mashbills in Midleton, recipes for pot still whiskeys of yore that could be resurrected and released in tiny batches, little pieces of history brought alive and offered to the world as part of a celebration of our heritage? Perhaps, perhaps not. But until they do, we have Midleton’s interpretation of SPS, ahistorical as it may be, and hey, it isn’t all that bad.
At a Redbreast masterclass at Whiskey Live Dublin in 2017, attendees were given a gift – a sample of Redbreast 21-year-old bottled at cask strength. I, being both antisocial and impoverished, was not in attendance, but John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan was there, and through a circuitous route that involved Omar ‘That’s Dram Good’ Fitzell smuggling the sample up from Kerry, I managed to get my paws on a generous portion of this fabled whiskey (a 100ml sample of it sold at auction for more than a hundred euro earlier this year).
And so to some notes on this rarest of birds:
Nose: Hello again, chocolate, tobacco, leather, raisins, and for SPS Redbreast bingo, Christmas cake in a glass, complete with marzipan and brandy butter. Pear drops and camphor, roasted banana, flambé crepe with Nutella. It’s cask strength, but you genuinely wouldn’t know it – this is about flavour, not strength.
Palate: Really reminiscent of the Dreamcask, so much so that it should really become an annual, relatively affordable release – flog 300 of these for 250 a pop one day a year, g’wan. Up front there is more fruit, those JR ice-lollies from the Eighties, rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding; it is dark, rich, deep, like meself. There is a lot of toffee, fudge, dark chocolate, hot chocolate with a drop of Baileys in it.
Finish: That zesty snap of the SPS spice fades slowly, and again a lot of notes reminiscent of the Dreamcask, that bergamot, the sweetness, the leather and tobacco wafting. A beautiful whiskey, and one that deserves to be shared with the world (stocks permitting). Is it automatically better than the standard 21? Not really. It’s great, but to me that 21 is the gold standard for Irish whiskey, SPS or SM or SG or blend or vatted malt or anything. It is accessible, widely available and an absolute beauty. That said, the 21CS could easily be the match of the Dreamcask, especially if it was released at a reasonable price and in a fashion that didn’t become a flipping free-for-all.
Aside from all my grumbling about the technical file, and the fact that it could do with some significant edits, if there is a way to open hearts and minds to our unnecessarily complicated indigenous style, then Redbreast is it. Forget the youthful SPS of Dingle, Teeling and impending ones from Great Northern, or even the multiplicity of well-aged Powers single casks, ain’t nobody got time for that. To hell with the Spot family, beautiful as they may be, because they are an even more confusing pitch than Redbreast. The smart money is on the priest’s whiskey. Redbreast was my epiphany, and look at me now, friendless and alone, writing sprawling thinkpieces on a minor category of whiskey. So here’s to our grains of future past, and to single pot still whiskey, whatever it once was, and whatever it may become.
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.
I can still remember the first time I read Vice. It was a 2009 Babes of the BNP piece that summed up their ethos – sleazy, funny, and cruel. From the get-go I loved their skate-punk nihilism and cartoonish approach to journalism – a mix that that saw them become the go-to resource for disenfranchised twentysomethings. Long before Buzzfeed attempted to bludgeon our attention spans to death with listicles, Vice was the face of a new kind of journalism, one that sparked a debate about what journalism actually is. But whether old media liked it or not, Vice was here to stay.
Ten years on from when I first lolled through their skewering of the BNP, this brilliant long-form dissection of their history shows how they are no longer the crazy punks they once were – they are a massive global media brand, and as such they jettisoned questionable founders like Gavin McInnes, brought in questionable investors in the form of Rupert Murdoch, and sprouted many wings, including Virtue, their advertising agency. The landing page for Virtue shows just how they’ve changed, boasting lines like this one:
Rather than try and fix the agency model, we’ve planted a jungle on its grave. Our DIY punk roots, empathy, and irreverent sense of style breeds work that’s as important as it is attractive.
I read that and all I can hear is the Canyonero jingle, as this is exactly the kind of guff that Vice used to eviscerate. But we all have to grow up sometime.
The greatest trick Vice managed to pull off is maintaining that edgy chic despite their world-conquering position, so it is little wonder that when one of the world’s biggest drinks firms, Proximo, wanted something with bite, they hired Virtue (Jameson went the more direct route with sponsored content on Vice itself). Of course, the only problem with massive firms hiring edgy creatives in order to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of millenials is that massive firms don’t really want edgy – they want safe, and cool, but mainly safe. And this brings me to the new Bushmills promo.
We don’t usually see a lot of TV spots for Irish whiskey here. Our market is in the States, so that is where we aim our advertising spend, and also guides our creative choices. This is why a lot of Irish whiskey ads tend to be a version of Irishness that really does not exist, rooted in a past that never was. Just as The Quiet Man was Maurice Walsh’s daydreaming about a place that didn’t exist, most of the imaginings of Ireland we see in US-based ads are selling a never never land of shirtless youths and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Obviously, Proximo wanted something different.
They tasked Virtue with creating a more modern whiskey promo for the tragically-named Red Bush, the new Bushmills expression aimed at the American market – the ‘Irish whiskey for bourbon drinkers’. Virtue got one of their shining stars, Jessica Toye, to create something cool and edgy and safe. She explains her motivation thus:
While other whiskey brands show Ireland as a caricature of itself with rolling green hills and tweed suits, we immersed people in the Ireland unseen – the gritty streets of Belfast.
I can only assume this ‘green hills and tweed’ comment is a dig at one of the best Irish whiskey ads of recent years, Tullamore DEW’s The Parting Glass. The multi-award winning advert is a masterclass in emotional manipulation with a comedic twist. Yes it is twee, yes it has tweed, and yes it features many rolling hills and even has Ireland’s greatest natural resource – rain – in copious quantities; but it has wit and it has heart, and despite the fact it was made by a London ad agency and was almost never screened on Irish TV, I still see it as one of the best Irish whiskey ads. It is so good that its premise was flipped a couple of years later by two German film students who made the stellar Dear Brother as a spec ad for Johnny Walker.
But obviously making an ad for Tullamore DEW is a little simpler than making one for Bushmills. As a pitch, the Tullamore DEW brand comes with limited baggage – it is a mix of whiskeys from Bushmills and Midleton, and it is owned by a Scottish firm, but nobody would claim it wasn’t Irish – Tullamore is right there in the dead centre of Ireland.
Bushmills is something else – either Northern Irish, or British, depending on who you are trying to argue with. Irish whiskey may be the category it belongs to, but good luck claiming Bushmills is Irish. But how do you get that message across, if you even want to? How do you retain that magic brand of Irishness, without obscuring the fact that the distillery is in the UK?
The Red Bush promo had a limited range of options as it has to be set in Northern Ireland – a relatively small place, with only a few globally recognised landmarks. This means you can go film crashing waves and rustic charm around the Giant’s Causeway, or you can go urban and feisty in Belfast. Bushmills is seven minutes from the Causeway, and an hour from Belfast, but if they wanted something modern and fresh, they would have to go urban. And so they did, with something Toye’s website describes thusly:
With a pack of 16 Irish red heads running fearlessly through the streets, RED. SET. GO. reflects the feeling of drinking Bushmills straight. The calm before the first sip, the rush of blood coursing through your veins, and the feeling of freedom with nothing in the way.
It’s all very well to trash ‘tweed and green hills’, but don’t follow it up by using the least accurate stereotype of all – that Ireland is overflowing with red-haired people. Scotland has 13% of the world’s population of red haired people, with Ireland in second place with 10%. Perhaps this places Belfast – with its heady brew of Ulster Scots and Irishness – in the eye of a perfect ginger storm, but given the divisions between those two communities, I’m assuming not.
But the real bravery of Toye’s advert comes not from eschewing rolling hills for cobbled streets, but taking a brief associating anything red with anything in the North. Belfast’s streets have literally run red on enough occasions in the past that even contemplating the concept of Red.Set.Go was a bold move. Or perhaps I am overthinking it – after all, the first thing that came to mind when watching the promo was Alan Clarke’s punishingly bleak Elephant, one of the best films about the Troubles. Perhaps America doesn’t know, nor care, about all this history, or what Ireland – North, south and everything in between – is or is not.
I will let the press release fill in the rest of the dead-eyed, joyless details:
Created and produced by Virtue, VICE Media’s celebrated creative agency, “RED. SET. GO.” depicts a fresh, young, real version of Ireland by following a pack of Belfast locals from dusk to dawn on a lively night out, with RED BUSH in hand. The red-hued anthem immerses viewers in the Ireland unseen. Set in Belfast’s alleyways, underground raves, tunnels and cobblestone streets, the :60 spot is backdropped against the gritty and intoxicating single “Louder” by Kid Karate. The ad showcases this group en route from one destination to another, because truly great nights are about the moments in-between and the anticipation of what’s next.
“The next generation of whiskey drinkers craves real experiences and honest brands – we made ‘RED. SET. GO.’ for them,” said Jeffrey Schiller, Brand Director of BUSHMILLS Irish Whiskey. “For so long, Irish whiskey has been about tall tales and green plastic hats on St. Patrick’s Day, so ‘Irish-ness’ has almost become corrupted. We want to show America the real Ireland, and what better Irish whiskey than BUSHMILLS –Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery – to show the way.”
“With ‘RED. SET. GO.’ we want to show the raw and electrifying Ireland that sets us apart from the romanticized vision of the country that is far too often portrayed,” said Jess Toye, Creative Director at Virtue. “The sounds, the set, the people represent the real Belfast and convey the excitement and energy of the city.”
Ah yes, the real Ireland and the real Belfast. Two places not on any map, as no true places ever are. Except obviously, this ad captures nothing of the city and could have been filmed in almost any city that had a few cobbled streets, or even on a soundstage.
My disappointment with this ad is ultimately part of my despair around one of the great distilleries on this island. Bushmills is a victim of centuries of geopolitics, bounced around from caretaker owner to caretaker owner, with no-one quite understanding what they are meant to do with the place, or how to handle the complexities of identity, culture, and economics in the North. This ad is symptomatic of the policies of remote control have held both Bushmills and the North back – administrative powers that were removed from any sense of place or culture making decisions that assume too much. And as for the liquid it is pitching, I’ll leave the reviewing to someone who knows more about whiskey and the North than I ever could.
Bernard Walsh always strikes me as a hail-fellow-well-met-kind-of-chap. He has built an incredible brand in Walsh Whiskey, and then went on to build an incredible distillery in Royal Oak in Carlow. This makes this news all the sadder, as watching any relationship fail – be it personal or professional or both – is never easy.
WALSH WHISKEY & ILLVA SARONNO AGREE TO DEMERGE JOINT-VENTURE
Whiskey brands and distillery businesses split with immediate effect and without redundancies.
The Directors of Walsh Whiskey Distillery have decided to split the business by separating out the existing drinks brands business, built on the Writers’ Tears and The Irishman premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys, from the distillery business at Royal Oak, in Ireland’s County Carlow.
Current sales, marketing and distilling objectives are being fully met, however the Irish and Italian Directors differ on how to develop the combined business into the future.
This change will result in the Irish directors taking full control of the existing drinks brands business built on the Writers’ Tears and The Irishman brands that are among the most popular premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys in the world being sold in 50 countries worldwide. Consumers of Writers’ Tears and The Irishman portfolio of brands are assured of their uninterrupted availability. This business will continue to trade under the name Walsh Whiskey.
Illva Saronno will take full ownership of the distillery, which is renamed “Royal Oak Distillery”. Illva’s objective is to further enhance Royal Oak as a centre of excellence in Irish whiskey making by continuously improving its technology and processes, producing all three styles, Malt, Pot and Grain under one roof, enhancing the visitor experience and achieving recognition as one of the best quality Irish whiskey producers in the market.
There is an in-depth piece on WhiskyCast that shows how hard this must be for the Walshes – they built this brand from the ground up, and, in 2013, finally achieved the dream of building a distillery. That said, what they walked away from is nothing in comparison to what they walked away with.
I’m not going to eulogise Writers Tearsagain, but I love that whiskey in every way – the bottle, the design, the name, the liquid, the concept. But it isn’t the only ace the Walshes now hold – the whole parcel includes a range of 12 Irish whiskeys under the Writerṣ’ Tears and TheIrishman brands, the Hot Irishman Irish coffee and TheIrishman – Irish Cream liqueur. Walsh Whiskey has well established supply deals with powerhouse distilleries, a strong distribution network, and a bright future.
The Italians now have a beautiful distillery and a great team – but no brand, and no real identity. Bernard Walsh was the face of the distillery, and they will struggle to replace either him or the brands he created. Perhaps they will be happier building their own brand to their own spec, but the vacuum left by the severing of the relationship will not be easy to fill. It’s going to be an interesting few years in Royal Oak.
It’s that time of year when we look at trends for 2019. Actually, that time of year was about two months ago, in a different year, but I was busy then, so it has taken until now to get this done.
Predicting drinks trends is a risky business – do you play it safe by saying ‘markets will continue to struggle’ or ‘millenials are ruining everything’, or do you go all out and tell the world that agave/rum/armagnac/fermented CBD oil are going to be huge this year? I have no idea, as I am a 43 year old man sitting alone in his kitchen in a cardigan with a gas heater on. Trends, or fashion, or fads, or anything remotely resembling relevance are a foreign land to me. But I can tell you what I am excited about, or interested in, and what I hope to see in the Irish whiskey category this year.
Expansion: More distilleries, more indie bottlers, more everything. After some struggles, even the Moyvore Whiskey Vault got the go-ahead. There is a fantastic write-up by the ever-reliable Whiskey Nut about a meeting in the initial planning stages which shows just how much silliness had to be overcome, with ‘what if terrorists attacked it?’ being one of the more memorable NIMBYisms. It showed how hard it would be for any smaller distillery to get planning for warehousing on any scale. Fun fact: One of the chaps behind the Vault is the director of Writech, which did all the fire safety wiring for the colossal Midleton revamp, and you can see Writech’s timelapse video of the Garden Stillhouse being built here:
The Moyvore project means you can distill under contract, age the whiskey elsewhere, and not be worried ageing the barrels in your garage and watching them turn your azaleas black. It opens up great possibilities – now you just need a distillery, and not ten acres of warehouses that need 24-hour surveillance. Obviously, ‘just’ a distillery slightly understates the seven to ten million euro you need to actually build one and get it running before you even start production and then wait three to ten years before you can start making money. But hey, every little helps.
The Great Irish Whiskey Drought: Lads tis going to be worse than Black 47, there won’t be a cask older than three years left in the country. Or not, depending on who you ask. The question is – can the current supply of mature stock carry us to the point where we no longer need sourced as a lifeblood of new distilleries? I’m going to assume that with the boom at Bushmills, the answer is yes. Or at least, yes with an asterisk. And that asterisk is Brexit.
Brexit: Back in 1996, Willie Brown, the then mayor of San Francisco, poured a bottle of Bushmills white label down a sewer in the city. Brown was protesting what he said were Bushmills’s sectarian hiring policies, and called for a boycott. Irish Distillers Ltd, who owned Bushmills at the time, pointed out that while the town of Bushmills’s population was almost entirely Protestant, 27% of the staff in the visitors centre were Catholic, which given the demographics of the town, was a lot. It didn’t really take, and the line about Antrim’s finest being ‘Protestant whiskey’ stuck all the way to The Wire – as though Jameson was somehow a Catholic name.
Naturally, one year after after the San Fran demonstration, a DUP Alderman named Ruby Cooling started a one-woman boycott of Bushmills because the distillery sponsored Antrim GAA, which at that time did now allow members of the security forces to play for them. IDL had to explain that they sponsored many sports, not just GAA, but it didn’t matter, because this was the bad old days of the North – you simply could not win. We have moved on so much that it is hard to remember just how shitty it was. But now, thanks to Brexit, it would appear the UK wants to drag the North back to those bad old days.
Even in the early stages of Brexit you could sense that the goons leading the charge were looking to co-opt Bushmills into their mad rampage, with Andrea Leadsom back in 2016 droning on about ‘Northern Irish whiskey’ making Britain great again. I am very excited about NI whiskey, and I really hope that we can see it becoming a distinct Irish whiskey region, with a unique style and attitude – for it is a unique place with a unique identity – but right now the category to be with is Irish whiskey, not NI whiskey. But if that border goes back up and trade gets complicated, the fallout for all-island Irish whiskey could be sizeable. Consider how much sourced stock used here to fund the building of distilleries comes from Bushmills, or how much grain spirit goes from Midleton to the North; how much Irish whiskey is sold in the UK, how big whiskey tourism here could be for whisky lovers in the UK, or the border issues facing anyone who comes to Ireland and hopes to visit all the distilleries, North and south – the potential repercussions are endless. In short, fuck Brexit.
Wood: In Scotland, you legally need to mature whisky in oak. This means you can use any kind of wood, as long as it’s oak. Here, it has to be wood, usually oak. This allows us to bend and break boundaries, explore new flavours and cross-pollinate with other fields. Waterford were straight out of the traps with experimentation, using casks of Andean oak, wild cherry, chestnut, and acacia – a wood that Bushmills used as a finish on their distillery exclusive, while Midleton used native oak in Dair Ghaelach. Cask finishing is always going to be big, but here we have a chance to get really wild. So wood is big news, but not as big as grain.
Grain: When I was a child, there were no potatoes as adored as the Ballycotton potatoes. Each year my parents would excitedly bring home a bag of the Ballycotton new season potatoes, and spend meal times discussing how great they were. There was no marketing or branding; this was pure flavour. The spuds from Ballycotton were simply better – growing high on the headland behind Ballytrasna strand, the soil was kissed by the sea air, battered by the odd raging storm rolling in off the Atlantic, and nurtured by a farmer who knew what he was about. Ballycotton potatoes are still highly prized; there is simply something about where they are from that makes them superior – the sea, the soil, the sky. The Irish may not have a word for what made them special, but the French do – terroir. Coming from the wine regions, it is a way of describing how the unique environment of each vineyard produced a different flavour. But this isn’t about grapes or potatoes, but rather barley.
Irish whiskey does not legally need to be made with 100% Irish barley, and grain spirit is made from imported maize, so there was no onus on Waterford Distillery’s Mark Reynier to use Irish grain. None of the big guns use 100% Irish barley, but I would imagine that that was at least part of the appeal of the project he has undertaken. I’ve written about it before, many, many times, but I genuinely believe that his distillery is going to change how the world sees Irish whiskey. If you haven’t visited the distillery and tasted the different distillates from different farms, then you should, and only then will you understand why this is so important. Reynier may come across like a monomaniacal Ahab, endlessly pursuing the perfect single malt across the oceans, but he is deadly serious, and is in the process of making the most authentically Irishsingle malt in living memory. Between Waterford’s terroir obsession and Blackwater Distillery’s blockchain traceability, it would appear that the Déise are leading the charge in genuine, forensic provenance.
Culture: We have a dedicated magazine, blogs, social media accounts and a thriving whiskey culture. In 2019 this is only going to get stronger, and we are going to see more and more of the accused breed known as influencers. Across the PR and marketing spectrum, nano-influencers – or those with fewer than 10,000 followers – are becoming a key leverage point. They operate in niche fields and rather than just leading a million fawning accounts, they actively engage with their following. The idea of the influencer makes all of us want to vomit blood, but they have always existed – Jesus, Charlie Manson, Bertie Ahern, your local GAA star who won an All-Ireland and was thus hired by the bank to stand around talking about former glories; all these have influence and are, or were, influencers, just not in the modern, social media sense. A niche market like whiskey is a relatively easy place to become a nano influencer – just find a channel and use your voice. Whiskey lovers are few and far between – but the internet has made us a community.
So the fans are linked up, but what about the distilleries – could any of us accurately say where even half of them are with regards their plans, or their progress, or anything? I think that starting a distillery is such a labour intensive affair that distilleries often forget to keep the channels open to the nerds. It’s fine to have an interview in the local or national press once in a while, but this is a long game and you will be lucky to get an interview once a year. But if you connect with whiskey lovers online, through social media or blogging, and take them along for the journey, then you will have your a voluntary public relations operation ready to fight your corner. I know the distilleries that I feel most invested in, and the ones that I have the most interest in, are the ones that used social media well – it isn’t rocket science, just the odd tweet about the day to day working of a distillery, or blog post about yeast. You can retain some digital bitumen bandits to run your Insta account if you want, and nod blithely while they cook numbers and conflate clicks with engagement, but if you can do it at all, keep those direct lines of communication open to the whiskey community. After all, the smaller, independent distilleries need all the support we can give them, because here comes trouble.
El Diableo: An easy prediction for any year is that Diageo will continue to be the pantomime villain of the drinks world. Oh no they aren’t, oh yes they are, etc etc. To be fair, Diageo are fine, but I often wonder if they had been the ones in charge of Jameson/Midleton for the last four decades, how supportive would they have been of all the newcomers in the industry. About as supportive as Thanos was of 50% of the universe when he snapped his fingers in Infinity War, mayhaps. So Diageo are back – Louise McGuane wrote an excellent piece that gives great insight into what seemed like an odd move (selling Bushmills and then building a distillery in St James’s Gate), but a recent interview with Grainne Wafer, the global brand director of Roe & Co, makes you wonder about their game plan. Diageo have their sights set on the premium category, which as they rightly point out, is wide open in this country.
“The Irish whiskey category is really dynamic, but the super premium and luxury segment of Irish whiskey globally is underdeveloped. We think there is a strong opportunity to drive growth of premium Irish whiskey. That’s where Roe & Co sits,” she told Fora.
You know, Roe & Co, the whiskey that looks like Bulleit and is discounted in Tesco yet you still don’t want it. The interview goes on:
“You’ve only got a handful of brands that are operating in that super premium space. There are some starting to build on that, but we believe we can take the lead and shape that segment,” she said.
“For example, some of Jameson’s new innovations like Caskmates and Teeling’s small batches would sit up there. Likewise, that’s where Roe & Co would play; in the upper end of that segment.”
So the 50 to 60 euro category. If that’s premium, then we are a far meaner nation than I previously believed. Of course, it was rightly pointed out by Serghios Florides, editor of Irish Whiskey Magazine, that as Diageo used to own Bushmills, a distillery that is packed with fantastic mature whiskey, for them to now act like they are going to teach us all about categories is a little rich. This sentiment was echoed Yves Cosentino, who was Global Marketing Manager with Bushmills Irish Whiskey from 2005 to 2008, in the earliest days of Diageo owning it.
When I worked at Diageo in the Reserve Brands Group, Bushmills was added into our portfolio for a while. Nobody ever wanted to talk about it, focus on it, or even address it. The brand was an also ran in a company with a Huge portfolio of Rockstar Scotch Whiskey. It was an afterthought. It was under the eye of Diageo that the distillery sold off much of its stocks at the low point of the wholesale market. There was never a blockbuster ad campaign or indeed much love for Bushmills at the global office in London during my tenure.
So cheers once again to the mad titan Diageo, it’s great to have you back in the Irish whiskey category.
Diversification and innovation: The recent Bord Bia report into Irish food and drink showed some impressive stats for whiskey, but underneath those was a stark warning – we need to broaden our horizons. What we call ‘the Irish whiskey boom’ is, in reality, the ‘Jameson In America’ boom. If you subtract those stats, which relate to one drink in one market, it is a rather different picture you get. But Jameson has laid the groundwork, and hopefully it will continue to do so in emerging markets like Asia and Africa, while Diageo, Brown Forman, and whoever owns Bushmills this week will be able to do the same.
What we need to be able to do now is show the world that actually, Irish whiskey isn’t just the mellow, smooth, approachable Jameson, that we can do peat, we can do double distilled, we can do single malt, we even have our own indigenous style. We can challenge and confront misconceptions and have the confidence to try new things. Look at Irish Whitetail – contrary to what this misleading article says, they do not have a distillery, nor are they using African mahogany casks. They are using sourced, Cooley malt and finishing it with African mahogany – I’m going to assume the system they use is very similar to Tom Lix’s Cleveland Whiskey, ie, pressure + wood pellets = flavour. Lix’s approach to innovation is excellent – on the labels of his whiskey he challenges you by being completely up front about what he is doing. I admire his attitude and I enjoyed his whiskey. I’m not going to give up my respect for traditional ageing, but I definitely think there is room for pushing the boundaries in the category, both globally and domestically.
Health: I am prone to using terms like ‘neo-prohibitionism’, but even I need to face reality – booze isn’t especially good for me. I can ramble on with a load of whataboutery, drone on about how sedentary lifestyle, processed foods, or chemtrails, are just as harmful, but there is little point. Despite the fact that our alcohol consumption rates are falling all the time, booze is in the crosshairs of Big Health, and will continue to be for some time. Of course, it isn’t just about physical well-being, but social issues too.
In a bout of harrumphing, I happened to ask an ENT consultant how he felt about the health bill introduced last year. He said that we are only just starting to understand the impact that alcohol has on health, and that the cancers of the head and neck he saw were so often linked to alcohol consumption. Then I asked if MUP was just a class-based prohibition, and he said this: Don’t be afraid to look outside your own privilege. There are children whose lives are being ruined by parents who are lost in alcoholism, and cheap alcohol is central to that.
I can wring my hands all I want, but ultimately he was right. There are people who cannot help themselves. It’s like saying well, SVP buying food for families ravaged by alcoholism is simply facilitating their self destruction. Ask the SVP about this and they will tell you point blank – either they fill the cupboards with food, or the cupboards stay empty. This is not an either-or situation, where SVP bought the cereal for the kids so you can treat yourself to a slab of cans that costs half nothing. I’m not saying I want whiskey to get more expensive – it is already – but there is booze that goes for half nothing and it is ruining lives. That, whether we like it or not, is going to have to change, and it would appear that this is happening sooner rather than later. Yet however I feel about the impact on health of alcohol, cancer warnings on bottles of Irish whiskey, and not on bottles of Scotch on the shelf alongside them, is insane.
The decline of pubs: It has been a gradual decline, and it is going to continue. Drink driving laws are not to blame – if anything, our lack of regard for the dangers of drink driving allowed an unhealthy number of pubs to thrive here. We are drinking less, drinking at home more and – crucially – drinking better. I see little wrong with this picture. There will always be room for a great pub, but even in my hometown there are far too many.
One final prediction for 2019 is that I will continue to write too much. This post is 3,000 words, thank you for your patience. I wrote my first published piece about whiskey almost six years ago, and I would love to tell you that my passion for writing on the subject has abated, but it obviously hasn’t. Your passion for this blog post probably abated about two thousand words back, but thanks for hanging in there. Maybe I should make 2019 the year I learn to self edit. We shall see.
Conor McGregor has great taste in Irish whiskey – he was often seen sipping some excellent whiskeys after big bouts – so when he announced he was bringing a whiskey out, I had great expectations. Would he go for super premium, would he opt for a more approachable ten year old single malt, or even a pot still release? No, he would not. He opted for a blend, with grain from Midleton (update: Not Midleton but GND, apparently) and malt from Bushmills, the latter being a distillery which seemed to mistakenly believe he owned.
I haven’t tried Proper No. 12 – a name he was forced to settle for after his attempt at trademarking Notorious was shot down – and while there are obviously those who would knock McGregor’s drink for the sake of it, it does appear that his pricing on this release – 35 euro – is a little over the top. Still, I wouldn’t hold that against him – Irish whiskey has long had delusions about pricing, and as a result has a long way to go before it offers the value for money that Scotch does.
There is one thing that McGregor’s Proper No. 12 will do for Irish whiskey: Increase category awareness. With his tens of millions of fans, he can bring more people into the fold. We all start out on blends, and Proper No. 12 will be a gateway for a small percentage of those who try it and are curious to know more. Obviously a lot of people will drink it because they love him, and never go beyond it, as the liquid doesn’t really matter to them, because this is about his brand. And herein lies my problem with this product.
Even the slightest scrutiny of McGregor’s rhetoric in recent years should set alarm bells ringing. You can call it banter, or patter, or whatever you want, but the racism, bigotry and Islamophobic dog whistling he has engaged in is an obscenity. I admire his swagger, and his skill, but watching Khabib Nurmagomedov choke him out was incredibly satisfying after all the insults McGregor threw at him about both his faith and his family. This aspect of MMA – the war of words leading up to big bouts – makes it look less like a sport and more like a back alley bar fight. Compare the dignity and grace of Katie Taylor with McGregor’s ‘dance for me boy’ comments to Mayweather and then tell me Ireland should be proud of him. Still, as ambassadors for Irish whiskey go, McGregor is probably less tainted than John McAfee.
McGregor’s release was the whiskey headline of the year, and the release of Red Spot was a staid affair in comparison, even if it excited the nerds. Red Spot, along with Green and Yellow, are throwbacks to the old tradition of bonding. I’m not going to digress into a history lesson, because in this case it is largely irrelevant, but here is some musty press release for you to blow the dust off:
The Mitchell family commenced trading in 1805 at 10 Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin as purveyors of fine wine and confectionery. In 1887, the business expanded into whiskey bonding whereby it sent empty wine and fortified wine casks to the local Jameson Distillery on Bow Street to be filled with new single pot still spirit for maturation in the Mitchell’s cellars.
The Red Spot name was derived from the Mitchell’s practice of marking their maturing casks of whiskey with a daub of coloured paint to determine the age potential of the whiskey; with a Blue Spot, Green Spot, Yellow Spot or Red Spot indicating 7, 10, 12 or 15 years respectively. Four generations later, the company is still in the wine and spirits business under the stewardship of Jonathan Mitchell and his son Robert.
Red is a triple-distilled, single pot still Irish whiskey that has been matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of casks pre-seasoned with Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and Marsala fortified wine. I bought a bottle for Christmas and liked it – very sweet, rich and smooth, like meself.
The problem now for the Spot family is where Blue will sit. It is meant to be a seven-year-old, while Green was meant to be a ten year old. In some super-duper premium releases, Green is a ten, but in its most common iteration it is NAS, and priced at the 50-60 mark. Yellow is a 12 and is 70-80. So where do you place a seven year old? It has to be cheaper than Yellow, so let’s say 60. What then for Green, which as a NAS is presumably aged four to seven years? To me, the easiest way round this is to do Blue as a cask-strength and place it at the 70-80 mark. Obviously I’m no consumer expert, but it will be interesting to see how Blue finds its place. The Spot family needs it though, as it currently looks like three freshers off to a traffic light ball, adorned with yellow, red and green badges, bootcut jeans, Rockports and Ben Sherman shirts. Or maybe Blue Spot will just look like a paramedic showing up at 3am to stop them from choking on their own tongues.
It was a big year for Irish Distillers Limited – they bought a brewery to secure casks for Caskmates, and also supposedly sorta kinda announced they were building a distillery that would be seperate from their current base in Midleton. Beyond that they continued to release single casks in connection with various whiskey pubs, with a barrage of Powers and Redbreast releases keeping the collectors running around the country like the cast of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and keeping a lot of whiskey pubs loyal to the throne.
Then there is the alleged upcoming IDL release of a gin, and here comes some wild conjecture: I think it could be released under the Method and Madness label. The M&M brand, with its links to the experimentation in the microdistillery, is ideal for a gin (the gin still is also housed within the micro). M&M makes sense for this – they are coming into a crowded market and they need to go small and experimental, ie, the exact opposite of their jaded Cork Dry Gin, AKA ‘the gin your racist aunt drinks’. Gin is a wild scene and if this release from Midleton doesn’t take hold, the M&M brand allows them to quietly shelve it as an experiment that erred on the side of madness. Again, all conjecture on my part.
Outside of the industry, Ireland has a raft of new whiskey voices. It’s fantastic to see bloggers, YouTubers, Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles popping up and enjoying that general buzz of a scene that is exploding. It’s an exciting time to be a whiskey lover, and I would urge anyone out there with a passion for our native spirit to start blogging, tweeting or just larking about on the internet, as we always need more voices. And besides, there’s always the off chance you might get the odd freebie or ten.
In May I was invited over to the Spirit of Speyside festival. It is an incredible event and I recommend it to anyone interested in whiskey tourism and how to do it right – the new tasting room in Strathisla was a great education in how you make whiskey tasting fun and interested for those who don’t care all that much about whiskey. It can’t just be a science lesson and a look at some stills – you need to give people an experience they will remember. Let the nerds into the warehouse with the master distiller, but the buses of tourists need more than a wander around a stillhouse and a talk on yeast.
Obviously, this was my second time being brought over for the Spirit Of Speyside. I was there in 2015 too, and was invited largely because of all the nice things I had written for the Irish Examiner about Midleton Distillery. The festival sponsors in 2015 were Chivas, or, to give them their full title, Chivas Brothers Pernod Ricard. My invite this year also came from Chivas, and I stayed in a Chivas house next to Strathisla. Look, I am basically a giant whiskey whore and we all just need to make our peace with that fact, I have no scruples and I am in the pocket of Big Whiskey, I’m changing my name to Bill Linnane Pernod Ricard, or Jean Luc Ricard, yada yada yada.
I had assumed that as my French friends were so generous during the year, that I wouldn’t be getting a Christmas bottle. I saw other bloggers and whiskey commentators getting Redbreast 15s and Green Spots, and thought, good for them, as I hummed All The Young Dudes to myself. Then a package arrived, and I gave my wife quite the jolt when I shouted FUCK ME as I opened it and realised what it was. It was, in fact, this:
Irish Distillers has unveiled the next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition.
In collaboration with expert forestry consultant, Paddy Purser, the Irish Distillers team of Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation, and Billy Leighton, Head Blender, chose Bluebell Forest on Castle Blunden Estate to provide the oak for the second edition in the Midleton Dair Ghaelach series. Each bottle can be traced back to one of six individual 130-year-old oak trees that were carefully felled in the Bluebell Forest in May of 2013.
Bluebell Forest is found among the historic stone walls of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Since the 1600s, generations of the Blunden Family have watched over a stand of Irish oak trees with a carpet of luminescent bluebells covering the forest floor.
To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves, which were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez. After drying for 15 months, the staves were worked into 29 Irish oak Hogshead casks and given a light toast.
The whiskey, made up of a selection of Midleton’s classic rich and spicy pot still distillates matured for between 12 and 23 years in American oak barrels, was then filled into the Irish oak Hogshead casks and diligently nosed and tasted each month by Leighton and O’Gorman. After a year and a half, the pair judged that the whiskey had reached the perfect balance between the spicy single pot still Irish whiskey and Irish oak characteristics.
Bottled at cask strength, between 55.30% to 56.30% ABV, and without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest is available from November 2017 in markets, including the US, Canada, Ireland, France and the UK at the recommended selling price of $280 per 70cl.
When this first hit the market I cheerfully remarked that whilst celebrating the great houses (and cashing in on their equally great history) is nice, it’s also worth remembering that they were built on the bones of a million Irish dead. It was a thought that came back to me at Powerscourt as I stood in the estate’s pet cemetery – there are headstones there from 1916, meaning that while the aristocrats were holding funerals for their dogs, Irish people were being lined up and shot because they wanted their freedom. A terrible beauty indeed.
But enough of my inept historical punditry – to some equally inept tasting notes!
On the nose, sweet red pepper, roasted tomato, the leather/tobacco/spice trifecta in full effect. I’m not sure where this is going – it’s part savoury, part spun sugar, with that curious wood element in the background. Chinese five spice, roasted banana, Black Forest Gateau, shortbread biscuit, melted Twix, and a fair amount of WTFery. It’s not as immediate as the Redbreast 21, but then, what is?
On the palate, Euthymol toothpaste, fruit pastilles, Skittles, a lot of really bright flavours, and a lot less of those deep, dark ones of RB21. It is smooth, and elegant, but it just lacks that Krakatoa boom you want from something that costs 300. It’s a very well made whiskey, with great balance, but it’s no Dreamcask. However, it’s the element of experimentation with native wood that makes this remarkable – the ability to make a uniquely Irish whiskey that little bit more Irish.
Of course, I’m not just a corporate mouthpiece for Big Whiskey, I’m also a corporate mouthpiece for medium-sized, grassroots, bootstrap whiskey, in this case embodied by West Cork Distillers. I had eyed them with an air of Cold War paranoia over the last couple of years, seeing them as secretive and touchy. What the hell are they building in there, I growled to myself. Then a chance meeting with John O’Connell changed that, and he threw open the doors in Skibb to me, a trip that became this sprawling piece on FFT.ie. John is one of the most honest, straight shooting people in Irish whiskey, and is quietly doing great things down there. One example of this is his spirit of experimentation, such as their reverse engineering of peated whiskey.
Peated malt is hard to come by in Ireland – legend has it that one maltster did a peated batch but didn’t clean the pipes properly afterwards, with the end result that a batch of very lightly peat-tainted malted barley went to a very large and notoriously black-hearted brewer. Cue said brewer issuing a notice to all malting houses in Ireland that there was to be no more peating or they would no longer do business with them, thus ending peated Irish malt. Allegedly.
Peat is an undiscovered country here – we have a few peated whiskeys, but as far as I know they were all peated in Scotland, using Scottish peat, and – most likely – Scottish grain. As always, I’m open to correction here, so feel free to jump in and school me.
John O’Connell comes from a background in food science, and experimentation is in his genes, so to create a peated Irish whiskey, he simply infused casks with Irish peat by charring them with a peat fire. Taking single malt aged in sherry butts, he then finished the whiskey in the peat charred cask for another six months, resulting in this release. It’s a single cask, released at cask strength. But what I love about WCD is their sense of fairness – all of their releases are incredibly reasonably priced, which may be part of the reason they don’t often get the respect they deserve.
Whiskey is a snobbish scene – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – and a value dram from WCD might get overlooked in favour of a pricier bottle. This peat cask release has a surprisingly clean nose despite the strength – not a huge amount from the peat, but a lot from the sherry – red fruits, black cherry, oatcake, maybe a little red onion jam. Nail polish, but in a good way. On the palate the strength makes itself known immediately. The peat here is minimal – I could see this being used as an intro to peated whiskeys for those who might not be ready to have their face fucked by Laphroaig. This liquid has a lot of sizzle, making way for oily, slightly smokey flavours – hickory smoked bacon, BBQ sauce and caramelised sugar. A short finish, and a fine dram for a good price. I even like the wine-bottle aesthetic they opted for.
This whiskey is a brave experiment for a small distillery and I think it’s worth a punt. Obviously, there are those who would disagree, but I love that WCD took a risk. The Irish are nothing if not inventive, and I welcome a bit of experimentation – it doesn’t matter if that is with strange casks, biodynamic barley, strange grains, local peat, or even pellets of African mahogany. The Dair Ghaelach and the WCD come from opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a super-premium release from a massive distillery with money to burn; the other is a bargain dram from a distillery that has a still which was made from a hotel boiler. But what unites them is a willingness to experiment and try new things, and for that they are both to be commended.
And so to 2019. How many more distilleries are going to make it over the line? Maybe it is just my pessimistic nature, but to me it seems like we might be hitting peak distilling. Clon are on stream, Boann are there too, Glendalough are working away at getting their whiskey distilling operation up and running, Tipp are opening in 2019 in Dundrum House. I find myself looking at the IWA distillery map from a couple of years ago and marvelling that so many have actually made it. Granted, some on the map won’t make it, but overall it is a pretty impressive feat that we went from fuck-all distilleries to this many in a short period of time. There will be teething problems, but any concerns I ever had about the integrity of our messaging has nothing on the absolute mess that is Japanese whisky.
That said, if I was an American with roots in north Cork and I bought a bottle of Kilbrin Irish whiskey, produced by the Kilbrin Distilling Company, I would expect the liquid within to have some link to Kilbrin, especially as they say it is from the parish of Kilbrin.
Spoiler alert: Kilbrin whiskey has nothing to do with Kilbrin, apart from being ‘inspired’ by a mythical treasure buried in Kilbrin. It’s okay though, as this was a rookie error by a small firm with no background in whiskey, actually hang on I’m just checking my notes here and it would appear that the firm behind Kilbrin Whiskey is actually a subsidiary of Scots whisky giant (and owner of Tullamore DEW) Wm Grant & Sons. Well now I don’t know what to think.
The problem here isn’t really transparency per se – I genuinely don’t care where this whiskey comes from (chances are it is from Bushmills). I do start to care if I feel that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of American consumers, as there is also the contagion effect of mistrust. I don’t buy Japanese whisky anymore as I don’t want to have to turn into Hercule Poirot just to find out if the liquid was actually created in Japan, and if a couple of poorly-thought out brands burn the American consumer then we are doomed.
Yes, all Irish whiskey is Irish, so we are nowhere near the Japanese situation. But surely if place is being used as a selling point then we should consider that down the road people might want to visit that place to see where the whiskey came from? Why not just speak straight, like the fantastically blunt explanation of Blacks Whiskey and where it originated. Besides, if you are going after the average American consumer, surely people rather than places are both safer and more engaging – how many myths and legends do we have that could be exploited for a brand story? Feckin’ loads of them, all we have is batshit crazy stories about giants and mad yokes fighting huge dogs, stick them on the bottle rather than poor auld Kilbrin, a place I wouldn’t want any American wandering around in the hopes of finding a distillery. I’m not even sure they have a post office.
The good news is that even if we burn our bridges with America, at least we will have China to plunder, as Bord Bia have commissioned a report on attitudes to Irish whiskey there, and are looking for the findings in ‘a visually appealing, high-definition conference PowerPoint presentation which highlights the core insights and offers recommendations for the industry’. Wow – Powerpoint, I’d better hit pause on my Hootie and the Blowfish mp3 on my Zune, log off my dial up internet and use my landline to call 1996 because if you need to specifically ask people to use Powerpoint, you are setting a low bar. It just reminds me of the laughable LOI rebrand.
Irish whiskey bonder Louise McGuane, who has vast experience in both the US and Asia with various drinks brands, summed up what the report should say in a single tweet:
Now if only I could find a way to screenshot that tweet into a Powerpoint slide and maybe get it to spin into frame, then I could be raking in some sweet, sweet tax dollars from Bord Bia.
It wasn’t all good news for Irish whiskey this year – Brexit still poses massive uncertainty for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning whiskey scene, while I’m personally holding Brexit to account for Master Of Malt no longer shipping to Ireland. Apparently, it was always illegal for whiskey to be shipped unaccompanied into Ireland, but nobody seemed to give a damn when I brought in a few grands’ worth over the last four years. Now, with Brexit looming, there would appear to have been a clampdown. Thus, I have nowhere to go for my cheap deals – even the whiskey from my hometown was often cheaper on MoM than it is right here where it is made. If any whiskey fan out there has a solution to this mess, please HMU in the comments.
This sprawling disaster of a blog post is only an incredibly brief sliver of rumour and innuendo, and in no way representative of just how alive Irish whiskey is right now. If I could chuck in my job and spend six months doing a Barnard and visiting every distillery in Ireland, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t, so sadly you get this armchair punditry instead, in which I have managed to not mention about 90% of the big events from the year – Teeling pot still, Kilbeggan Rye, Dingle maturing like a fine wine, and the pagan science going on down in Waterford, which is part Wicker Man, part Gattaca. So here’s to 2019, 2020, 2021, and all the great whiskeys to come. As the old song goes, things can only get better.
“Nobody knows anything about us,” John O’Connell says of West Cork Distillers, the firm he co-founded and has poured 17 years of his life into.
It seems incongruous – at a time when Irish whiskey is booming, one of the most grassroots, ground-up operations in the country is also one of its least well-known. This is partly because they have no marketing department, no PR wing, and any money they have is put into making more whiskey, rather than advertising. As a result, they developed something of an air of mystery in the Irish whiskey scene – rumours circulate that they are the source of much of the third-party stock on the market (they are not), that they were behind Conor McGregor’s whiskey (that honour is held by Bushmills) or that they are some sort of secret state, a North Korea of Irish whiskey (this, they most definitely are not). West Cork Distillers, much like their founder, are simply quiet.
John O’Connell has no official title, a jarring fact given that he has his pick of several – master distiller, co-founder, CEO, CFO, visionary. But he doesn’t want a title, as he likes to run WCD with no hierarchical structure. Even the title of the company he created reflects this ethos – it is West Cork Distillers, not West Cork Distillery; this is about people, not things. When I asked if I could meet him in the Skibbereen distillery, he had one condition – that I meet as many of the staff as possible, as they were as central to the story of WCD as anything. And what a story it is.
From the little fishing village of Union Hall, O’Connell was one of nine children. After school he did a Phd in colloidal chemistry and food science only to discover upon graduation that there were few jobs for colloidal chemists in Ireland. Despite his claims that he ended up in this line and in the sciences generally ‘through confusion’ and that there is no masterplan to his career, his family have a tradition of science – his mother was a science teacher, while his sister is a doctor. His mother’s father was from Reenascreena between Glandore and Leap, and he was also a science teacher and keen botanist – he was also key to the excavation of Drombeg stone circle.
Despite the lack of jobs, O’Connell didn’t want to leave Ireland to find work, but he ended up working with Unilever doing food science research in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Japan. Unilever was based on a campus that had so many staff it had its own bank, while staff members could often be seen playing croquet at lunch – this was a vast organisation.
O’Connell realised that he could affect little change at Unilever, so he moved on to Kerry Group, a job which he loved. As head of research, he was in control of a significant budget and travelled all over Europe to food science plants conducting research. He says joining Kerry Group was the second best decision he ever made, and leaving it was the very best – because that was the genesis of West Cork Distillers.
Not far from O’Connell’s family home in Union Hall lived his two first cousins, Denis McCarthy and Gerard McCarthy. All three came from large families, and O’Connell says he can’t remember a time in his life when Ger (one of eight children) and Den (one of seven) weren’t in it. The McCarthy cousins became deep sea fishermen, a brutal job which in its modern form is akin to a kind of indentured servitude, as you are tied to an ever-deepening debt for your boat and gear.
So the three cousins decided to come up with something else to do. First they were going to process seaweed, but the capital expenditure on that was too high. So they set up West Cork Distillers in a room at the back of Den’s house, with two small stills they bought from a schnapps producer in Switzerland. It may seem like an odd choice of venture – this was back in 2003, when Irish whiskey was only starting to wake from its century-long slumber, and it made almost no economic sense to start what a media savvy marketing team would brand as a craft micro-distillery.
It made no sense to open a distillery – but there was a tradition of distilling in the family. O’Connell came from a long line of distillers – albeit the illegal variety. O’Connell’s father came from Coppeen in the Coolea Mountains, the poitin heartland of west Cork, where many families ran their own stills. His father’s brother even took the family’s distilling heritage overseas – working in the 1960s as a porter in a UK hospital he set up what he claimed was a dark room for developing photos, but was in fact an illicit still – run right under the noses of the nuns. So while there was a tradition of science in the family, there was a less well-known tradition of distilling there also. Embracing this ancient art, and using his vast expertise in food science, O’Connell and his cousins set to making alcoholic spirits in a back room, hoping for the best.
The first product from West Cork Distillers was Drombeg, which was not distilled, but was fermented, meaning it benefited from the advantage of a lower revenue rate. However, the State didn’t see it that way, and so it was that the three friends took on the Irish Revenue Service in Dublin Castle, represented themselves, and won. They got the better tax rate. This was going to be one of several skirmishes with the various arms of the state for the west Cork men.
In the meantime, they got to work on their distilling operation, building equipment as they needed to expand. O’Connell says that if you find yourself a fisherman, or a farmer, then you have a person of many skills – chemist, welder, builder, meteorologist, fabricator. As they expanded, they built everything they needed from scratch, and still do – the majority of equipment in West Cork Distillers sizeable operation outside Skibbereen has been built on site. To see how much they have built is inspirational – elements such as The Rocket, ‘the fastest still in the world’ according to drinks consultants Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley. But it’s name isn’t just from the speed it distills at, but the fact that it looks like a ballistic missile, although keen observers will note that the top of it looks very much like a large domestic boiler, because that is, in fact, what it is.
After their Drombeg release came the Kennedy range, which brought more controversy as whiskey fans felt it was an insult to their category; it was a brown spirit at a lower ABV that was aimed at the Asian market, a field that O’Connell knew from his travels. He says himself that with their earliest products they were ‘clutching at straws’ to get the firm off the ground. Undaunted by drinks snobbery, they ploughed on with their firm, despite the fact that at times it must have felt like the whole world was against them.
O’Connell’s family were shocked that he had left a dream job as head of R&D with Kerry Group to make booze in a back yard, so he had to make it work. WCD didn’t have time to pander to whiskey snobs, so they released Kennedy as a savoury brown spirit. However, they were making straight up whiskey as well. They started laying down new make in 2008 and increased the volumes they were laying down in 2012, with higher volumes again in 2014. O’Connell went on a fact-finding mission to MGP, Indiana’s super-producing distillery, saw how they worked, both as a producer and as a commercial entity, and replicated it with WCD.
After five years in Den’s yard, they moved to Skibbereen’s Market Street in 2014, and with the expansion they now had rates to pay, staff to pay, and all the pressures of a growing business. Fortunate then that they landed what was a massive new-make contract, which helped them turn a corner. This was also a turning point for the Irish whiskey category – sales were accelerating, but rather than cash in, WCD have kept a level head – as O’Connell says, if they are selling their whiskeys for more than Redbreast, they are losing. They need to keep that competitive edge against the big guns.
O’Connell has a fantastically down to earth attitude about WCD. He is polite, and good company, but he isn’t one for schmoozing. He recently pulled WCD from the Irish Whiskey Association, as he felt it was an unnecessary expense for his firm. WCD just keep their head down and work, quietly growing all the time. They don’t do tours of their distillery, but they never turn anyone away.
The site they bought in 2016 – a former fish processing plant – is a 12.5 acre area where they do everything – fermentation, distilling, warehousing, bottling – and almost all the equipment was built by hand right there in west Cork.
“Desperation is great motivation,” O’Connell humbly says, but they have clients all over the world – more than 65 countries, from Japan to Belize, the latter being a country that O’Connell had to try and find on a map after the deal was closed.
Underneath all of this work, all this blood sweat and tears, is O’Connell’s vision to just make Irish whiskey accessible – it’s an ethos reflected in both their pricing and their range. Their sourced range – the ten and 12 year old malts finished in sherry and rum casks – retail for about 42 euro a bottle. Most of the sourced ten year old malt on the shelf in Ireland is around 60 and upwards, even though they quite possibly come from the exact same distillery (either Bushmills or Cooley, most likely the former).
O’Connell is one of the most disarmingly open and honest people you will meet in Irish whiskey – he will tell you anything if you simply ask. At talks or tastings he shares spreadsheets of their production output, and talks openly about buying equipment to analyse their own and their competitors products to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. He is an extraordinary man, a man of great faith, in science, in religion and in people, who has never backed down and never given up on WCD. He says that, if he could go back, he wouldn’t do it all again, that the price has been too high, all the heartbreak and battles too their toll. But it is hard to imagine him anywhere else.
Asked if he would sell if the money was right, his response is a straight no: “I wouldn’t know what to do. I work six days a week, on Sunday I go to Mass and have dinner with my mother and father, but then I’m back in here in the afternoon. I love working here with my friends and I love that our business has a positive effect on the economy locally.”
With 54 staff – many having come from the fishing industry – and an ever expanding operation, WCD is a significant employer in a region where jobs can be harder to find than they are closer to the urban centre of Cork city. WCD have sourced whiskey, produce for third-party sales, release their own stock under their own labels as well as celebrity brands such as Pogues Irish Whiskey, and are not afraid to experiment, releasing a whiskey finished in a cask that has been infused with peat smoke, an inversion of the famous scotches made with peated barley. They even make small amounts of rye and rum, and also buy in rum from eight different islands in the Caribbean. They also have about 20,000LPAs of mature pot still whiskey. Half of their new make is sold to other people – bourbon, scotch and Japanese whisky producers – but they still have plenty for themselves, and have built an excellent relationship with the McLoughlins of Kelvin Cooperage, a relationship that saw WCD getting their hands on ex-Michter’s rye casks that were toasted, rather than charred, a relative rarity. Everything with WCD is kosher – literally, as they were the first Irish distiller to receive kosher certification. WCD is growing, quietly, and with little fuss. There are no headline-grabbing PR stunts, just heads-down whiskey business. At the heart of it all is O’Connell’s wish to make Irish whiskey accessible, no frills, no bells and whistles, no spin – a whiskey for the people, produced in a distillery for the people.
In the hills outside of Midleton lies the village of Clonmult. It is one of those blink-and-you-miss it places that is hard to find when you look for it, and passes by almost unnoticed when you drive through it. There isn’t a huge amount of things to see up there – the site of one of the worst massacres of the War Of Independence, the three spindly streams that unite to form the Roxboro (better known as the Dungourney river), the holy wells of Knockaneo and Garrylaurence, the parental purgatory of Leahy’s Open Farm, and, if you know where to look, a megalithic tomb known as the Giant’s Grave.
It’s not an especially well-flagged place; of the few scraps of information about it online, there is this, which gives a sense of the wreckage – the tomb and its surrounds look like it has been looted. But if you were planning on looting a site buried deep in the woods of Dungourney and Clonmult, a half mile from the Giant’s Grave lies a bone fide golden hoard, albeit a liquid one.
The Dungourney maturation site, which is to be expanded.
Irish Distillers have a sizeable warehouse complex embedded in the woods, and are going to be building more over the coming years, because, in case you hadn’t heard, Irish whiskey is booming. Specifically, Irish Distillers Ltd whiskey is booming, a point made clear in this piece. Jameson is the re-animator of the entire category, but as that article asks, what happens now – how do you take Jameson’s success and expand it across the entire sector?
My take on the boom is the same as when I wrote this – let Jameson lay down the heavy artillery as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-chaser go-to whiskey of average josephine sixpack. Then you push through with the ground troops, winning hearts and minds using our single malts, single pot stills and the premium whiskeys of Ireland. This is happening already – as noted in the Irish Times, sales of premium whiskey brands like MVR and Redbreast jumped 40% last year. But this isn’t all about the US – sales of Irish whiskey are also rising in the domestic market, outpacing scotch, something that could be seen as a sign of a growing consumer awareness of the category.
The boom, as they say, is getting boomier, which might explain why Irish Distillers Limited are planning another distillery – or are they? The Indo said they were, citing Youghal as a possible site. Then IDL CEO Conor McQuaid went on radio the next morning to discuss their booming profits and when asked about the Indo piece, poured cold water on the notion that they were going to build another distillery.
Then an updated press release came out that afternoon which basically confirmed that they were looking at exactly that, stating: At Irish Distillers, our objective is to drive the growth of our portfolio of premium Irish whiskey brands supported by the strength of the Pernod Ricard global distribution network. We take a long term view and naturally, as we grow, there are implications for our business. We are currently examining all options to increase our production capacity to meet projected demand and building a new distillery is one of them. These are exciting times for Irish whiskey and we are proud to be leading the way.
Midleton is not at capacity – yet. Give it five to ten years, however, and that will change. IDL, like any distiller big or small, need to plan decades ahead. If sales keep rocketing, they need to be able to guarantee supply. Supply is the same reason they bought 8 Degrees craft brewery, to ensure casks for the runaway success that is Caskmates.
What this planned distillery could signal is the start of a Chivas Brothers-style model for Irish Distillers Limited – distilleries operating across multiple sites creating key elements for blends like Powers, Jameson, and Sazerac’s Paddy. For any firm the size of IDL, you simply cannot put all your eggs in one basket.
It’s also worth noting that any distillery of decent size is about more than just stills, grain silos and warehousing, so the space they appear to have in Midleton may be needed for something other than the front end of production; have a gander at this device, which closed the main street of Midleton when it was being delivered:
I'm starting a rumour that it's the old Amgen site in Carrigtwohill. look, mysterious tanks already moving in! pic.twitter.com/YfjS4tgpJQ
It is an evaporator, which takes liquid waste such as pot ale and turns it into dark grains (animal feed) – because a beast like Midleton Distillery needs to manage waste as well as crafting wonderful booze. So it’s not all hewn stone and copper pots.
The new mechanical vapour recompression evaporator in our Midleton Distillery is part of a €150m investment to guarantee the supply of whiskey to over 130 markets across the globe long into the future. https://t.co/LZlOQgdt1spic.twitter.com/puIaptX9Wd
IDL have acres of storage space in Dungourney, but they will need more liquid. Midleton has the Barry Crockett Stillhouse, the Garden Stillhouse with its six stills, the micro-distillery and the biggest, baddest column still you are every likely to see, but with sales going the way they are, this new distillery, expected to be up and running by 2025, will be vital. Where it will be built is the next piece of the puzzle.
Two years ago IDL bought a farm next door which is part zoned for industrial, but I would imagine that after the floods in Midleton three years ago, and summer 2018 which saw almost no rainfall, they are thinking about how our climate is changing. In the decades to come, IDL will need a reliable, sizeable water source – one that doesn’t either flood the site or run dry. Little wonder that Youghal became part of the speculation, with excellent roads, oodles of space, a region that is crying out for a investment, and the monster that is the Blackwater. While it may flood lowland towns upriver, if that river ever runs dry, we will all be dead too long to give a shit about it.
In the meantime, Irish whiskey is becoming more diverse – Slane started production, Teelings auctioned their first in-house three-year-old pot still whiskey for more ten grand, and the tide is rising and lifting all boats. The challenge for many brands-turned-distillers will be moving from sourced stock to their own, and this is particularly true for the Jameson-in-waiting, Tullamore DEW. They are second biggest in the market, and will have to nail the transition. Consider that they currently have three disparate elements in their ubiquitous blend – malt (presumably Bushmills), grain (presumably Midleton) and pot still whiskey (obviously Midleton). So they need to replicate those three liquids perfectly in their new 35 million distillery in Tullamore, along with making standalone expressions.
I’m no scientist, but I would suggest that if the chaps at Wm Grant & Sons wanted to perfectly replicate Bushmills malt and Midleton pot whiskey, they could do it with relative ease. Science means that a modern master distiller or blender may talk about the romance and poetry of whiskey, but behind closed doors they are brilliant chemists who can perfectly recreate a whiskey if they need to.
Date Captured: 03/07/2014 Pictured here is the newly installed Tullamore Distillery Spirit Safe. Also in the background are two of Tullamore Distillerys copper stills.
So I’m going to assume that Wm Grant & Sons have a healthy supply contract with Midleton and Bushmills, but if sales keep going at the rate they are, everyone is going to be watching those corners – whiskey is not going to be something you will want to share. Their own plans for Tullamore were thus:
Located on a 58-acre site in Clonminch on the outskirts of the Co Offaly town, the distillery draws on spring water from the nearby Slieve Bloom mountains, and will be capable of producing the equivalent of 1.5 million cases of Tullamore Dew annually, when fully operational.
The move brings whiskey production back to Tullamore for the first time since the original distillery closed in 1954.
The new plant contains four hand-crafted copper stills, designed to resemble the original stills from the old Tullamore distillery, six brew house fermenters each with a 34,000 litre capacity and warehouse storage for 100,000 casks.
So Tullamore is back on the distilling map, but their own stocks are only just hitting maturity so I would imagine that like Walsh Distillery et al, the supply contract will keep going for another few years.
On that note, here comes this 18 year old single malt, which is triple distilled. In the olden times I used to believe double-distilled meant Cooley, triple meant Bushmills. Then I read this post by Whiskey Nut in which former Bushmills master distiller Darryl McNally reveals that Bushmills did, in fact, double distil, and that this double distilled stock was offloaded and makes up the bulk of what the Teeling boys are selling. This is part of the Bushmills conundrum; why was this excellent stock sold in the first place? Bushmills is obviously the source of massive amounts of sourced whiskey, but it seems odd that one of Ireland’s great distilleries has become our MGP, rather than our Macallan.
This 18 year old Bushmills single malt is triple distilled and finished for ten months in a quartet of casks – bourbon, sherry, madeira and port. Bottled at 41.3%ABV, this is limited to 2,500 bottles, and is a reasonable 80 euro on the Whisky Exchange. I’m growing used to seeing Irish whiskeys over 15 year being around the 100 mark, so this makes a pleasant change. That said, I paid fuck all for it, as it was a gift from John Quinn, Tully ambassador extraordinaire, whose signature the bottle bears. To the tasting notes:
The colour is that amazing rose gold you get from port finishes – like bloody brass. On the nose there is rich cherry, vanilla butterscotch, while there are also fresher elements, pine needles, lime, and, oddly enough, a mouthwatering scent of meaty jus. On the palate – that extra percent in the strength is felt, then there are dried apricots and goji berries, a little cola bottle fizzle. Butterscotch nose makes way for fudge, tiramisu, and a gentle peppery finish. I like this – it’s a reasonably priced, interesting whiskey, and one that is finite. Cask finishes are too often seen as a variation on the expression that ‘you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter’, but this is a decent single malt with a stylish little kick, not an upcycled hot mess.
Pernod Ricard took many people by surprise when it announced on Monday that it had agreed to sell its Bushmills Irish whiskey brand to arch rival Diageo.
The French group’s decision to sell its Number Two Irish whiskey to a company with the marketing might to make Bushmills a serious challenger to Pernod’s top brand, Jameson, might seem at first sight a strange one.
But viewed as part of a wider picture, it makes more sense.
The prize for Pernod was to take Diageo out of the running in the race for control of Allied Domecq. The price to be paid was Bushmills, which has long played second fiddle in the Pernod portfolio to Jameson.
The €295 million (£200 million) price tag attaching to the Co Antrim-based distillery confirmed for some that there were other factors at play in this deal, which is conditional upon Pernod securing control of Allied Domecq.
While the price represents 14 times Bushmills’ €21 million contribution to Pernod’s coffers last year, one industry source noted that LVMH paid a broadly similar multiple for Glenmorangie, a less prestigious brand, last autumn.
That is just a sample, but that article is worth a read in its entirety to get a sense of just how far we have come in 13 years – a period of time which, in whiskey terms, is not all that long.
The initial reason for the sale of Bushmills was to break IDL’s monopoly on the market – something that we have no fear of now, with distilleries of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere. So here’s my pitch – instead of building another distillery, why don’t IDL buy back Bushmills? Granted, a new distillery would only cost a few million, and Bushmills could be 400m plus, but it’s clear already that the new owners are struggling to figure out what makes the place tick. Those massive warehouses in Antrim are absolutely packed with stellar single malts – something the IDL portfolio is sadly lacking. Now is the time for an operator with deep understanding of how to run a distillery, and a passion for Irish whiskey, to take the reins and make Bushmills great again. It is long-past time for the giant of Antrim to rise and make the ground shake.
Shift work is inhuman. There is something utterly unnatural about being awake all night. There are some who thrive on shift work, but they are a minority – most of us do it for the money, or because it suits our homelife, but very few do it because they like it. I only did nine months shift work in my life and I nearly lost my mind. Part of it was my age – I was in my forties and had four small kids, so the combination of little sleep by day and a shift pattern that was all over the place, meant I had to get out. I can still remember the odd feeling of being at my desk in the wee hours. You’d look at the clock – it’s 3.15am. You’d look at it an hour later – it’s 3.25am. Time becomes a pliable entity as your exhausted mind starts to play games with you – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop. Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was still awake, and would forget entire conversations, or imagine they were dreams. But at least I wasn’t alone in there – in an emergency department, you are never alone.
I like the idea of distilleries that can practically run themselves. Many of the modern ones do – as one distiller pointed out to me, machines make the best whiskey, and humans are really surplus to requirements for modern operations like Dalmunach. But there are older distilleries that spearheaded this drive to remove the human element from distilling. Sat on the slopes of the Ben Rinnes range, the wonderfully named Allt-A-Bhainne was built by Seagrams in 1975 to create malt for blends, primarily for Chivas Regal, but it does appear in indie bottlings from time to time.
I was in a mini-bus with a group of German whisky retailers as we tooled past the strangely modernist building. They, being massive whisky nerds, asked the driver to turn around so we could go back and have a look around. And so we did.
The distillery is quite modern in comparison to some of the chocolate-box scenes at places like Strathisla. Allt-A-Bhainne has no warehouses, and it rattles out 4.5 million litres of spirit per year. Water comes from the Ben Rinnes, and the distillery’s name translates from Gaelic as Burn Of Milk. While bhainne has the same meaning in both Irish and Scots, the way we would pronounce the name of this distillery is different – ollt-err-vane seems to be the common way over there, while we would go with alt-a-vonya.
The similarities between the languages were the sole reason I bought this bottling of Allt-A-Bhainne a year or two ago, but I felt more inclined to open it after being to the distillery. It was a curious place – nobody was around, and those vents are like something from an old sci-fi B-movie, when set and prop designers thought that angular aluminium would be all we would ever need in the future.
So Allt-A-Bhainne has an ancient name, retro-futuristic design and one poor operator stuck on shift in that one big room where everything happens. My bottle came from Douglas Laing’s excellent Provenance range. Distilled in 2008 and aged in refill hogshead, this was bottled in 2015 at 46% and is non-chill filtered. No pressure in reviewing this one, as it was cheap as chips – 40 euro from Master Of Malt.
Nose: Sulphur. Sulphur to the point that I actually thought it might be the glass (it wasn’t). It has all those ester notes – nail polish remover, must, bananas, white pepper, an astringent blue cheese note that isn’t entirely unpleasant. Like Sex Panther, it stings the nostrils – although not in a good way.
Palate: After the general brimstone of the nose I was ready for something unpleasant, but this is pretty uneventful. I can see how this would provide balance in a blend, but something tells me I would prefer to be drinking its counterpoint rather than this. There’s a little caramel, a little bit of the aspartame sweetness of a Creme Egg, and a lot of fuck-all.
Finish: Mercifully brief.
I seem to live my dramming life in a state of almost constant disappointment. So many whiskeys I have tried recently have just let me down – but at least this one was a cheap punt and worth a shot. It’s hard to know why this bottling isn’t as impressive as I had hoped – maybe I should just spend another ten or twenty euro and get something with more weight.
I loved A’Bunadh – now completely out of my price range – and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, so perhaps I do just need something bolder than this also-ran. I was keen to try it due to its odd name, interesting design and the fact that the distillery has no bottlings of its own, only under indie labels. Now I can see why. I’m not angry, just disappointed, which is why I am washing away the taste with a drop of the sourced seven-year-old single malt bottled by the recently completed Boann distillery. Bourbon aged, sherry finished, this is nothing new, or shocking, or weird, but is just a nice whiskey. I also love the sourced seven from Glendalough. I assume both seven year olds come from the same source (Bushmills?), as they both have a similar citrus note, although it’s worth remembering that this is coming from someone who had operations on his sinuses as a kid and thus has the olfactory capacity of Selma Bouvier.
The Whistler Blue Note – for that is what Boann are calling this – is rich and creamy, lots of coffee, toffee, hints of aniseed, that citrus, a little Oxo cube on the nose, and a lot of smooth warmth, as opposed to the ugly heat from the Allt-A-Bhainne. It’s a reminder that while we don’t have the variety of distilleries here, and all our older stock comes from three places, at least those three places generally made – and make – great whiskey. That said, I do look forward to a dystopian day down the road when we have our own version of Allt-A-Bhainne – an odd, lonely distillery that produces odd spirit that exists purely to make other elements in a blend look better.
Loving whiskey can be a bit lonely. It’s a bit like trainspotting – both involve a love of history and engineering, lots of note taking and bringing a camera everywhere. Granted, whiskey is a lot more fun, as you get to do all those things whilst half cut, but you get the idea – it can be a solitary affair. It can be hard to find others who share your boundless enthusiasm for what most people see as ‘just a drink’. This is where the internet comes in. In the absence of a local network of fellow enthusiasts, we have a digital fan club that spreads across the globe.
When I go online I can see thousands of people who are equally enamored with whiskey, sharing insights, reviews and photos – but we could always do with more, especially for Irish whiskey. More voices, more opinions, more reviews, more insights, more people holding industry to account. So cry havoc and let slip the blogs of war with this handy guide to destroying your life via blogging.
Writing – When I worked as a subeditor we used to have a Leaving Cert (Irish GCSE) diarist who would write daily columns about the exams. Some of the columnists were great – but some were what we would call ‘Englishmakers’. The kids were so used to writing to impress an English teacher that they would be doing linguistic acrobatics. Perhaps in some parallel universe their work would be seen as good, but we thought they were shit, and spent a lot of time unpicking the elaborate tapestry they had woven. So the best tip I could give anyone on writing is via Yoda – there is no try, only do. Don’t try to write, just sit down the hammer the keys. Don’t worry about crafting a masterpiece or you will take a lot of the fun out of writing and a lot of fun out of the writing itself. Just give it a lash. As long as what you say comes from the heart, everything else will work just fine. And, obviously enough, never, ever plagiarise. In the past I have plagiarised, which is why I feel completely comfortable telling you that only cunts do it. Write every word you can, give attributions where necessary, and shoot straight.
Platforms – I started blogging on MySpace, the clunky mess where I more or less ended my career, then moved on to Tumblr, which I soon realised was a hipster wasteland, and then finally came to WordPress. It’s user-friendly, but it has awful storage. To get unlimited storage you need to buy premium – a princely 300 per year – which I have and get almost no use out of apart from being able to store all the rubbish posts I imported from my Tumblr when I started here. If I could go back I would host images elsewhere, like Flickr, which is free, and then embed them here. But for the vast majority of folks not uploading massive image files, either Blogger or WordPress are perfect, with lots of nice templates to make you look like a pro…or at least semi-pro.
Images – Speaking of looking like a pro, a half decent camera is a good thing to have. I have a Nikon D3200, which retails for about 400 euro. It takes lovely photos, is sturdy and not so freakishly expensive that you would be scared to bring it anywhere. Mine is always with me and has been bashed off several stills over the years, along with almost falling into several mashtuns. Nice photos can make all the difference to distillery trips and can catch details that you might miss otherwise. To make the photos look better I use Google Nik, a free software package. It has very simple editing software, but also has loads of cool templates which means you can edit your own photos easily, or you can also work on product shots you get from PR firms to make your use of them stand out from the crowd. Humans are visual creatures – a nice layout with strong visual content is always a good thing, even if it’s just millions of photos of bottles, or pictures of you clutching John Teeling or Charlie MacLean.
Features – There is always something to write about with whiskey – especially with Irish whiskey. There are all these new distilleries just waiting to tell their stories. Wherever you live in Ireland, there is going to be one within driving distance. Ring them up, ask them if you can pop round, and get your geek on. One handy piece of advice is to download a dictaphone app to your phone and record the visit. This is also a good tip for when you attend tastings with reps. You don’t want to be scribbling details in your notebook when you can relax and enjoy, and then go back over what was said later to check any details you might be hazy about. Use your own internal barometer on what to include in any coverage and what to leave out. Obviously, I never follow this advice, as I write massively overblown long-form pieces, but it keeps me busy and thus out of trouble. Or does it?
Trouble – If you don’t like a whiskey, you say it. It doesn’t matter if you got sent the bottle for free and you fell you should really say nice things about it, don’t. If it’s not good enough, then why should anyone else go out and buy it, simply because you didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the creators? They aren’t going to learn that way. Everything is, of course, relative to price, and is worth bearing in mind with every review, no matter how you got your hands on the sample. Give credit where it’s due, and don’t be negative just for the sake of it. Everyone has their favourite brands or distilleries, but try to be objective and give everyone a fair crack of the whip.
Evidence versus opinion – If you are going to take on a brand over claims they make, you need to make sure you have cold, hard facts. Gather evidence – screenshots, PDFs, newspaper interviews. You need to be able to stand over what you say. This is the internet – assume everyone in the world is going to read what you write. Be nice to brands when they deserve it, be critical when it is needed, and be clinical when you need to take someone down. Offering your thoughts on the liquid is fine – it’s not defamatory to say a whiskey is shit, that’s honest opinion – but all the other cultural stuff about sourcing, marketing etc really needs to be backed up in fact, otherwise you could end up defaming someone.
Defamation – To defame someone is to lower their opinion in the eyes of right minded people. One classic example of this from the whisky world is the annual shit tornado that comes when Jim Murray releases his best-of list. People line up all over the internet to make accusations about how he comes to make the choices he does, yet no-one seems to be able to produce evidence to back up the slurs. Frankly, I’m amazed no-one has been sued over it – perhaps he doesn’t care, or perhaps he doesn’t need the hassle. But it’s worth noting that if you make an accusation against someone, they are not legally required to prove you wrong, you are legally required to prove yourself right. Unless you can back up what you said with evidence, you are fucked. Of course, there are always going to people who claim they have been defamed simply because they don’t like what you say, or because their feelings are hurt. So know what the law states, and remember that this is the internet, you need to get used to the rough and tumble of online discourse. Defamation is a very, very expensive process, both to prove, or to have proved against you. If an incorrect or inaccurate statement has been made, usually a correction or clarification is issued and that puts the matter to bed. Never be afraid to say you are sorry. Unless you weren’t wrong, then just tell them to go fuck themselves.
Don’t be a mouthpiece – Approach brands for samples, bottles, photos, press releases, their first born – there is no shame in asking for free stuff. When I worked in the paper there were senior reporters who used to blag free holidays for themselves, or free concert tickets, or free anything. Newsrooms are awash in freebies, to the point that we used to be turning down free holidays. Take a freebie as long as it doesn’t compromise you. If you’re in the blogging game to gain favour with distilleries, that’s fine, but your blog will be shit. Nobody wants to visit your site to read a nonsensical press release. If you don’t have time to rewrite what they sent you just use the salient points and cut out the colour – give the data, but try to do your own tasting notes. Your tasting notes are unique to you, your memories, your culture, your life. I love tasting notes as they are objectively meaningless, but are a brilliant way to profile people, as one might do with a serial killer: ‘This is the Zodiac speaking, and I am detecting notes of heather honey’.
Shamelessly whore yourself out – You need to help people find your blog. I use Twitter, so when I tweet a link to a blog post, most of the traffic comes from there. Most people use Facebook, which works more or less the same. On a related note, never buy followers. It is deeply transparent and truly desperate. Make sure you use relevant tags in your blog posts. WordPress and most other blog platforms have time settings so you can write a load of posts and then set them to be published at a rate of one a week. I write all my pieces in Google Docs, which is available everywhere (obviously), and then I rework them and copy them onto WordPress and quickly throw the layout together. It is all pretty simple – I’m really quite the Luddite, so if I can do it, pretty much anyone can. Or, you can get your kids to who you how to do it. It is also worth getting business cards – Vistaprint are cheap and cheerful and have loads of options, Moo have nicer ones that cost more but look far superior. Make sure before you buy that you are happy with your blog title, domain name, email address and so on as once the cards are printed you will be held to them. Also, be reasonable – I got 700 cards printed up in 2015, and think I gave away about 40, max. Even though they are handy, they are also quite cheesy and a little bit Eighties. Like, who couldn’t find you using Google?
Work at it – I’ve always loved the internet, as I was the kid in class who couldn’t shut up. Twitter and WordPress are just extensions of that. But blogging still takes effort. You won’t really know how much you like it until you try, but it is, at the very least, worth a shot – all the freelance work I get these days comes from a blog post I wrote about whiskey back in 2016; for some young blades their blogs became a way into the industry as ambassadors, but for most of us it is a hobby that gives us a way to share our thoughts and our passion with other fans. With that in mind, here are a few of the Irish whiskey blogs that I read and enjoy:
Liquid Irish – the first whiskey blog I ever read and still my high benchmark for food and drink blogging. I still use David’s site as a resource for information not available elsewhere about the nitty gritty of Irish whiskey. He is Obi Wan Kenobi to my Jar Jar Binks.
Westmeath Whiskey World – Short, snappy pieces about Irish and Scotch, thinkpieces about the future of Irish whiskey, and a really unique voice. Really like this one.
That’s Dram Good – From entry level to high end, Omar knows his whiskeys. Excellent taste and although just started, Omar has been writing and posting at a wicked speed.
Dave’s Irish Whiskey – Another passionate fan starting a blog, one of Dave’s first posts is about how he drove 500km for a bottle of whiskey. Hoping this blog will be the On The Road of Irish whiskey blogs.
Whiskey or Whisky? – Liberties-based Marc asks the eternal question – how should we spell the word anyway? A welcome focus on the new/old distilling hotspot, the Liberties.
WhiskeyJAC – Jamie is NI-based, and is putting out the posts at a solid rate; coverage of events, pieces on other spirits, and no aversion to a dram of Scotch.
Bourbon Paddy – A blog about bourbon from Ireland. What’s not to love? Some amazing bourbons out there, and this is a good place to learn more about them.
Causeway Coast – Phil writes for the excellent Malt but his own NI-based blog is packed with excellent news, reviews and features.
Pot Stilled – Matt Healy moved on to become Tullamore DEW’s man on the ground in Philly (fly Eagles fly!), so his blog is a little quieter these days, but still has excellent critical mythbusting pieces on whiskey.
Whisky Belfast – Stuart’s blog gets quite deep into the detail, like an episode of The Wire. A real nerd’s blog, which in whiskey terms is actually quite the compliment.
Chapel Gate blog – A voice from inside the industry, but one that shoots straight. Louise McGuane has insights into how the industry works that bloggers never will.
Waterford Distillery blog – Mark Reynier is a masterful communicator. You may not agree with him, but you can still enjoy the message.
Blackwater Distillery blog – Peter Mulryan, like Reynier and McGuane, makes the industry more interesting by going full Jerry Maguire on it. Big things ahead for their distillery, share the journey with the blog.
I’ll update this list as I find new ones, but this is a good start. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of all Irish whiskey blogs, but these are the ones I enjoy. It’s heartening to see so many newcomers, as this is all about diversity and discourse. There is no single voice of Irish whiskey – it’s up to all of us to help guide people through the category, and share the passion and knowledge we have of the subject with the world. And sher, if you get some free booze out of it, how bad.
In 2013, Barry Crockett retired from his role as master distiller in Midleton. His father Max was master distiller before him, and the family lived in the distiller’s cottage on the grounds. It was in this house that Barry was born. It was an old way of life in distilling, one that just doesn’t exist any more.
To mark Barry’s retirement, a local freesheet named The Cork News spoke to him about the change that was coming in his life and how he felt about it. The interview was conducted by the fantastically talented Maria Tracey, who sadly later left journalism for PR. The paper she wrote it for is no more. Their website was still active until recently, but now that too is gone. So here, for posterity, is the interview. Obviously, I have absolutely no claim to this, as it is not my work, nor do I have any copyright over it, but it’s an excellent piece worth preserving on some platform.
“I wake up at about 6.30am, and my first thought is usually influenced by whatever the news headlines were the previous evening. I wonder what has changed overnight, in terms of world news, and turn on the radio to listen to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.
A rushed breakfast normally involved cranberry or orange juice and two slices of toast with ham, tomatoes or bananas. It’s never anything too dramatic. I then head to the Midleton Distillery, where I’m head distiller, and get on with all the normal things that one does when they go to work in the morning.
It might seem unusual for those outside looking in that I was literally born into the job. When my father, Max left school, he was offered a position in the Watercourse Distillery in Blackpool and was eventually promoted to Midleton around 1945. He became master distiller and I was born at the Distiller’s Cottage where the old distillery is now.
Looking back, as a child I can remember being around the garden and seeing people coming and going. I remember the horses, one of my earliest memories. At the time, as was the case in Cork city, horses were widely used for transporting materials. There were several in Midleton hauling very heavy carts, just like the horses in the Budweiser ads.
I’ve spent all my life here, but for me, that’s not strange. As a child you accept these things and it’s only with hindsight that you can really evaluate it. Back then, in professions like banking or medicine, it was quite normal for a father to be a bank manager or doctor, and their son afterwards. And so becoming a distiller was a path for me. It wasn’t exactly cast in stone but more of an ‘open door’. I could have done other things but distilling was the way it ended up. If that hadn’t been the case, I was always particularly interested in history so maybe the teaching profession was a route I could have taken.
Every morning I receive a report on what has happened over the previous 12 or 14 hours, as the distillery is a seven-day week, round-the-clock operation. We have a quality meeting, which involves a wider group of people, and of course, part of the head distiller’s job is to assess quality.
The journey of the whiskey starts with the harvesting of the barley in the autumn. It’s all sourced within a 35-mile radius of the distillery but we don’t buy barley directly from farmers anymore, as the volumes are too large. Instead merchants assemble it to our specifications and if we are happy with it, then we will arrange to purchase the stock for the brewing process. The barley is malted and we effectively produce a type of beer that we describe as a ‘wash’, with an alcohol content of 10%.
Then there is the triple distillation sequence. You fill a very large, onion-shaped copper vessel- and when I say large, I mean very large, with a capacity of 750 hectolitres, or about 17,500 gallons- and apply heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water so by boiling the wash at around 80°C the alcohol vapours rise out of the neck of the still and through a condenser to return back into a liquid. It is then distilled a second time and ultimately a third time until you have a spirit with the strength of 84% left.
Maturation follows and the alcohol is reduced in strength by the addition of water, which is filled into a number of different types of oak barrels. Of course, by law, whiskey has to be matured for a minimum of three years. In most cases it would be way more. It’s a long-term investment where whiskey’s involved.
During the day, each batch of new spirit is assessed. We produce around 100,000 litres of pure alcohol every 24 hours, so it’s a big operation that’s going to become an awful lot bigger- doubling to 200,000- with the expansion.
Another important aspect of the job is that following maturation, we send tankers of finished whiskey to our bottling facilities in Dublin and we have a tasting exercise set up so nothing leaves the plant until it passes quality control. After that is taken care of, there is administration work to follow up on, and meetings about ongoing engineering work.
It’s all extremely exciting. In my career I’ve seen three separate distilleries being started, which is unusual. There was an expansion at the old distillery back in the late 60s, when I just started working here. And then there was the major expansion in the mid to late 70s and now, of course, there is a whole new development with innovative techniques like energy efficient column stills.
I am stepping back from it. You don’t walk into a job like this and take it over overnight. So, when I retire my colleague, Brian Nation, who has been working with us for years, will be taking over from me. It’s an appropriate time for me to go, as I’m passing on the baton to a younger generation. The fact that the industry is so long-lived is fantastic, you can see generations and generations carrying on and developing the business.
The techniques we use have been tried and tested. What each era brings is a small improvement overall with better technology. What we are distilling today won’t appear in the form of whiskey until 20 years time and while I certainly hope that I’ll be around in 20 years time, the industry will obviously have evolved. We sometimes say we are just tenants or custodians for a brief period of time, before handing it on.
I know my father could never have imagined the success of Jameson. It’s a remarkable story as the Irish distillery industry was in quite a weakened state in the early 60s. The pooling of interests by a rather enlightened group of directors to form the Irish Distilleries Group and the decision to export outside of Ireland followed by the taking on of the Group by Pernod Ricard in the 80s has seen annual case sales of Jameson going from 450,000 to four million cases per annum. That is quite remarkable.
For lunch, I usually eat in the canteen. They have a very good selection there, like roast beef or curry with rice and chips. I also have a few cups of tea throughout the day.
After lunch, I may have to meet with a barley supplier on the prospects for the forthcoming harvest. Commodities are highly volatile in terms of price levels and we have to predict the cost so we can budget for it. Nothing happens without the money there!
The end of the day is about assessing what happened over the previous hours and looking ahead to what will happen over the coming night. I finish up around 5.30pm and may have a dinner to go to or a conference. If I head home, my wife Bridget and I have tea at around 7pm. I can’t eat too much at night, just a salad. I don’t want to have two dinners in one day.
To be honest, I prefer to be out a lot of time if I can manage it. I’m a member of different clubs like the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve always liked hill walking as well but I haven’t been doing a lot of that recently, so maybe I’ll have more time in the future. I also have a strong interest in sailing but last summer was disastrous!
With it being winter, we’ve been to a plethora of films over the last month, like Argo and Lincoln. In the evenings, I usually read the newspapers after tea, because I don’t have time during the day. I would be a whiskey drinker- not at work obviously- but more for relaxation. Not on a regular basis, but if there are events that I have to attend, then I will have a glass there.
Looking back, being appointed head distiller in 1981 was a defining time for me. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in terms of how things have developed. What is totally unexpected is the Lifetime Achievement award by the Whisky Advocate magazine that I picked up and will be presented with in October. I must say it is something quite amazing as it’s the first time an Irish man has been chosen.
Retiring on Monday, March 18th, might seem like it’s linked to St Patrick’s Day but it’s actually my birthday, my 65th to be precise. So as it’s a public holiday, I’ll probably finish the Friday beforehand. Honestly, I think that will be my real defining moment. It will not be the end or a descent into aimless nothingness. It’s, as I like to describe it, the beginning of my new career.”
I’ve long been a fan of Writers Tears – even on a purely aesthetic level, I would sing its praises. Fortunate then that, beneath the surface, it is also a cracking whiskey. Walsh have recently released another expression in the family, and because every Irish family has at least one ginge in it, this one is titled Red Head.
This is billed as ‘a triple distilled single malt’ – so this is the point where I tap my nose, wink at you and mouth the word ‘Bushmills’. You furrow your brow, mis-lipread and think I mouthed ‘punch me’ and we end up in a tremendous donnybrook that makes the Táin Bó Cúailnge look like an especially weak episode of WWE Raw.
This exquisite, triple-distilled single malt is matured only in select handpicked Spanish sherry butts which have previously been seasoned with the finest Oloroso sherry. It is the influence of these scarce butts that give this expression of Writers Tears its signature rich, ruby hue and hence the moniker – ‘Red Head’. The expression is distilled without chill filtering as nature intended and at a distinctive 46% ABV.
So what of my slightly-pissed tasting notes:
A real sweetness on the nose, lots of rich caramel (the foodstuff, not the colouring) in there, a little bit of clove and cinnamon. Palate-wise – more spices than I expected, a lot of really nice heat from that extra bit of ABV, definitely feeling that orange peel note touted in the official tasting notes. The finish is not the 2001: A Space Odyssey-style epic the notes suggest, but it has more of the spice and less of the sweetness from the nose. For less than €50, and a NAS to boot, you cannot expect some multi-layered labyrinth of flavour. I prefer the standard Copper Pot expression, and would still recommend it over this, but this Red Head still has more soul than your average ginger.
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.