We have very bright and bushy-tailed marketing people, I have to say. Certainly in Japan they have captured the market that ‘drinking Irish whiskey is cool’, whereas even Scotch is something got to do with past generations.
Richard Bruton TD instantly making whiskey uncool at the announcement of a massive expansion of Irish Distillers’ bottling operation in Clondalkin. The development will create 30 new jobs, so that’s 30 more things for me to apply for and not get. Yay.
Alabama implemented statewide prohibition in 1915, four years before the entire nation went dry.
After national Prohibition ended in 1933, an “unholy alliance between the lawbreakers and the preachers” kept many of Alabama’s 67 counties dry, according to Hardy Jackson, Jacksonville State University’s Eminent Scholar in History. Today, only one county remains completely dry.
Many counties, however, held out for years because the bootleggers wanted to keep their money out of the tax-collectors hands. The preachers wanted to keep alcohol out of the mainstream.
In fact, I didn’t even know about this until some journos in Scotland told me about it. The message is clear: I am not important. Or, I might be important if I posted fewer Grim Escort Reviews and more noodling about hard liquor.
“The typography highlights this ‘handmade’ feeling which is maximized by some handwritten indications. A tyre track is shown on the neck of the bottle — a humoristic touch depicting the often terrible destiny of hedgehogs — an invitation not to take the wheel after drinking!”
A view of the Jameson Heritage Centre from the roof of the (mostly empty) multi-storey at Distillery Lanes.
There is a safety net, you just can’t see it.
Actually think the guy on the left is master cooper Ger Buckley, who is relatively auld.
Also, why the camper vans in the foreground?
Lots of ‘European’ looking people, ie, tanned and stylish.
No, I haven’t quite figured out how to work the autofocus.
Took these from the Baby Walk, a place that, after 5pm, you most definitely would not want to bring a baby.
Creepy. The photo, not the fact I was standing in bushes taking it, and that it is basically an upskirt.
Still a better movie than Superman Returns.
Dangling on barrels.
It seems the people in the photos are all staff of the distillery.
One last shot of the camper vans, taken while standing on a wall outside Iceland. #journalism
On Saturday night my dad popped in for a cuppa. ‘There’s something going on in the distillery, big crane down there, you should have a look.’ And look I did. I thought it might be something to do with the micro-distillery, but it was actually a photoshoot. The gates were closed, but the security guard was chatty enough, despite limited English. He told me it was a shoot for a single magazine, and he didn’t know a whole lot more. But with some filling in of blanks and from what I could hear over the wall and through the gates, the photographer is most likely Li Wei, who does this sort of thing:
So there you go now. Who says Midleton is a cultural wasteland? Apart from me, obvs.
So I got to attend the launch of the new bottle-your-own doodad in the heritage centre here in town. Fun event, not least because I got to meet the top guys in IDL, the peeps behind Life Of Stuff, and also take home a free bottle of cask-strength hooch. The article felt a bit rushed and I’m not entirely happy with it, but here you go anyway. Also, for purposes of clarity, I should point out that the mixologist I consulted went to school with me. Check out his website, which is very sharp..and was created by another guy we went to school with. Midleton College oldboyz rule.
No Reproduction Fee “Cork April 20th, 2015 X, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard, was the first person to individually bottle a 700ml bottle of cask strength whiskey in Cork at the launch of ‘Bottle Your Own’ in the Jameson Experience, Middleton.” Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee “Cork April 20th, 2015 X, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard, was the first person to individually bottle a 700ml bottle of cask strength whiskey in Cork at the launch of ‘Bottle Your Own’ in the Jameson Experience, Middleton.” Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee “Cork April 20th, 2015 X, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard, was the first person to individually bottle a 700ml bottle of cask strength whiskey in Cork at the launch of ‘Bottle Your Own’ in the Jameson Experience, Middleton.” Pic John Sheehan Photography
No Reproduction Fee ÒCork April 20th, 2015 Brian Nation Master Distiller, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard (left), was the first person to individually bottle a 700ml bottle of cask strength whiskey in Cork at the launch of ÔBottle Your OwnÕ in the Jameson Experience, Middleton.Ó Picture also shows Tommy Keane, General Manager Midleton Distilleries bottling a cast strength Jameson. From today visitors to the Jameson Experience have the opportunity to bottle their own cast strength Jameson Whiskey. Pic John Sheehan Photography
The Celts were a crafty bunch. Enjoying as they did the odd drink or ten, they realized that storing their alcohol was a problem, and they set to work finding a solution. At roughly the same time Jesus was turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, our ancestors across northern Europe were carving wooden staves and binding them together to create the first rudimentary shapes of what we now call the barrel.
Not that they boasted about it – Celts had no written language at that time, and virtually all physical evidence of the barrels themselves has disappeared. But the Romans took note of this ingenuity, and in the first century AD Pliny The Elder noted the use of casks by Celts living in the vicinity of the Alps.
This humble vessel became the tool upon which empires were built, vast migrations were enabled, armies deployed, and in which alcohol was transported, stored and matured. This last use has seen the barrel live long into the plastic age, because, unlike its synthetic counterpart, wood interacts with its contents; it has a personality and identity all of its own. So it seems fitting you can now stamp your own personality and identity on the contents of this most ancient of vessels, as the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton has installed a device that allows you to bottle your own, personalized whiskey straight from the cask.
The launch was an important one for Irish Distillers, a fact driven home by the presence of Master Distiller Brian Nation and recently promoted production director of IDL, Tommy Keane, who was general manager of the Midleton plant. Both men played huge roles in the transformation of the distillery into one of the largest and most efficient operations in the world, but there is no grandstanding about it. They both talk about how happy they are at the growing community of distillers in Ireland, how the whiskey renaissance is good for everyone. This rebirth of our national beverage has seen the distillers in Midleton embrace the Celtic spirit of innovation through the recent release of Dair Ghaelach, the first whiskey to be finished in native Irish oak.
Ignacio Peregrino, general manager of the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton pointed out that the personalized bottles of Jameson you can buy in the distillery gift shops in Cork and Dublin are by far the best selling items they stock, so it made sense to enable the public to take the finals steps in the journey from grain to bottle.
The expression (a fancy whiskey term for variety) in this case is Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel, a sweet, sherried drink that is a great introduction to the Jameson premium whiskey sector. The contraption that dispenses the whiskey is a reassuringly solid wooden device with a barrel sat atop it and a steam-punk dispenser complete with levers. Add to this some gravity and a bottle, and you get to fill your bottle with cask-strength whiskey.
Once you’ve selected and filled your 700ml bottle, you personalise the bottle label with your name, the date, the number of the cask, the bottle number and the alcohol strength before placing the label carefully on the bottle and creating your own completely exclusive bottle of Jameson Select Reserve Cask Strength Black Barrel. This is the only way to get your hands on the cask-strength version. After your bottle is labelled, you can log your bottle in the ledger, ensuring that your bottle becomes part of the history of Jameson forever. The ‘Bottle Your Own’ experience costs €100.
It’s worth noting that cask-strength is a whiskey category in itself: Most whiskeys have purified water added to them after being released from their three year-plus sleep, bringing them down to a still-impressive 43% or 40%ABV or so. But cask-strength is, as you would imagine, a more potent beast, in this case a daunting 59%ABV. For someone who enjoys a big, punchy flavor, cask strength is heaven. However, a teardrop of water can also open it up, bring out new flavours and personality that may have been partially eclipsed by the powerful alcohol vapours, so it’s worth having a bit of H2O on hand to soften the fire.
But if you would rather take your Black Barrel in a cocktail, mixologist Andy Ferreira of RaiseTheBar.ie and bar Pigalle on Barrack Street in Cork city has a recipe to tickle the tastebuds.
“Jameson Black Barrel Cask-strength has got us pretty excited at Raise the Bar. A big part of what we do is to try and evolve classic cocktails and introduce new and exciting elements and flavor profiles to existing recipes. The increase in ABV from the cask strength gives an already ludicrously tasty whiskey an added umph and will stretch what is already a very long finish.
“We’ve been using Black Barrel as our whiskey of choice in our Old Fashioneds for a few years now. The concentrated spice, nutty notes and vanilla sweetness are wonderfully enhanced by this method of preparing a cocktail. The Old Fashioned is the epitome of a classic and globally a standard setter amongst bartenders. Since it’s birth sometime in the 1880’s bartenders have added there own nuances but the basic ingredients and principles remains the same – sugar, bitters, base spirit stirred over ice and finished with an orange zest, the gradual dilution of the ice enhancing the rich notes in the spirit.”
Andy’s Black Barrel Old Fashioneds went down a treat at the closing event of last year’s Web Summit, the F.ounders Group gathering of 280 international technology leaders at the Grainstore in Ballymaloe, but for the cask-strenght edition he recommends a slight upgrade: “Previously we have made Black Barrel Old Fashioneds with a drop of good sherry and chocolate bitters. In Pigalle in Cork city our signature whiskey cocktail is the ‘Black in Fashion’. Jameson Black Barrel, bitters and a house syrup of Antica Formula sweet vermouth, blackberries and honey.”
Andy’s recipe is as follows:
Black in Fashion
Stir over ice:
70 mls Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Cask-Strength
20 mls syrup (equal parts sweet vermouth, honey, blackberries)
2 dashes of Angostura bitter
Orange zest to finish.
“The higher ABV in the cask strength Black barrel will be softened by the tangy, woody notes of the vermouth. Orange and dark fruit merge with the toasted wood and spices roll through from the pot still whiskey and flame-charred barrels.
“We extenuate this further by coating the glass with smoke from a Jameson stave that we scorch with a high-intensity flame. But this is a drink that is warm and soothing in cold months, and cool and refreshing on a long summers day.”
Or what our Celtic forefathers might have called ‘an all-rounder’. But a warning from history: Greek historian Diodorus Siculus writing between 30 and 60BC noted the Celts’ love of full-strength alcohol, discussing how they took their libations with no added water, before drinking it greedily and falling into a stupor or a manic disposition. So when you decide to roll out the barrel and toast Celtic ingenuity, it might be best to do so in moderation.
– The bottle-your-own facility is available in the Jameson Heritage Centres in Dublin and Midleton now.
These images show a person’s brain before drinking 6 ounces of whisky (left), immediately after drinking the whisky (middle) and 90 mins after drinking (right). In these brain scans, blue represents a more chaotic brain, while yellow shows less chaos.
THE WHISKEY RENAISSANCE has the world clamoring for well-aged hooch, but the so-called brown spirits—whiskey, brandy, rum—have one widely-publicized problem. It takes time, and lots of it, to make them. Or at least to make them taste good.
The booze industry has been looking for shortcuts to the aging process virtually since its inception, ranging from dumping extra oak chips into barrels of whiskey to artificially heating and cooling them to rapidly simulate the passing of seasons. While some of these tools have had modest levels of success, many have been complete failures. In fact, even Jesus weighed in on the dangers of trying to hasten the processes of nature when he said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Luke 5:37)
If Bryan Davis has his way, that’s all about to be totally upended, sacrilege or not. Davis has come up with a method of producing spirits that taste like they’ve been aging in the barrel for 20 years, but his process only takes six days.
I met with Maurice and Frederic Hennessy, two brothers who are the eighth-generation descendants of Richard Hennessy, the north Cork man who created the iconic Cognac brand. The feature ran in the Irish Examiner a few months back, but this is the full version. All the beautiful photos were taken by the fantastic Ger McCarthy, one of the best press and PR photographers in Ireland.
As birthplaces of empires go, Killavullen is more humble than most. Nestled between the lush green slopes of the Blackwater Valley, the village is home to an immediate population of about 200. It is a pretty place, with a few pubs, a church, and a community centre.
But it is at the highest point in the village that you will find the origins of one of the best-known luxury brands in the world. Almost hidden among the trees is Ballymacmoy House, the ancestral home of Richard Hennessy, who went on to create one of the world’s best-known and most-respected Cognac brands. So it was fitting that as the Hennessy dynasty celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, two eighth-generation descendants of Richard Hennessy – brothers Maurice and Frederic Hennessy – welcomed 55 wine producers and distillers from the Cognac region to their family home.
Frederic lives in Ballymacmoy House, having spent the last number of years restoring it to its former glory, while Maurice travels the world as Ambassadeur de la Maison Hennessy. Both grew up in France, but have many happy memories of coming to Cork for their holidays.
“I think I was 10 when I first came to Cork,” Frederic tells me; “we were told that if we did well in our school exams, we would be brought to Ballymacmoy for our holidays. So we did well, and we came here.”
Maurice tells me one of his first memories of north Cork – being taken on a hunt. As he was only 12 or so, and an inexperienced rider, he fell from his horse when it shied at a wire gate which suddenly loomed up in front of them. “Stupid gate!” he says laughing. But he was smitten by the country – both brothers felt a deep connection to Ireland, and the Irish. And so they should, for it was here in 1724 that the youngest son of Lord Ballymacmoy was born. At 20 years of age, he took flight to France to fight with King Louis XV.
Injured at the Battle of Fontenoy, he later settled on the banks of the Charente River, which glides past the town of Cognac. It was here that he started making this particular style of brandy, and where the empire began to take shape. However, it was Richard’s son James that really accelerated the expansion, forging links with the Martell Cognac dynasty through marriage and also being one of the first drinks producers to begin trade with the Revolutionary government, whilst also linking up with traders in London and New York in the 1800s.
While Cognac may be perceived by some as a patriarchal, elitist drink, Hennessy is a true egalitarian spirit. It has links to the founding of the Tuskegee Institute, a groundbreaking centre of education for African Americans, as well as the civil rights group the National Urban League. Hennessy was also the drink of choice for African American soldiers during the Second World War, just as jazz was embraced by the French when it arrived in the clubs of Paris in the aftermath of the war.
This affinity with African American culture saw Ebony magazine describe Hennessy as ‘the unofficial official drink of Black America’. Rappers don’t embrace Hennessy because it symbolizes their wealth, they embrace it because they feel ownership of it. But this sense of ownership is shared around the world: Maurice tells me a story from the time in 1996 when Jacque Chirac sanctioned nuclear tests by the French military in the Pacific Ocean. The world was aghast, and there was an Irish boycott of French goods. One little old lady was picking up her usual order at the grocers in Dublin, and when asked if she would take her usual bottle of Cognac also, she said she ‘wouldn’t touch the French stuff after what Chirac did, but would take a bottle of the Irish stuff, Hennessy, instead’.
“Some see it as a French drink, made in Ireland,” Maurice smiles.
However Irish it is in spirit, the geography of where it is produced is enshrined in law – Cognac can only come from the Cognac region. Like Champagne (a name which, like the name ‘Cognac’, is derived from a word meaning ‘chalky soil’), once the drink is produced elsewhere, it loses the legal right to that name.
So the wine producers and distillers entertained at Ballymacmoy House were of vital importance to Hennessy. Maurice explains how they nurture the growers just as the growers nurture the vineyards – Hennessy works with the farmers to ensure they get the best result possible from their crops and distilling processes. There is no ruthless business ethic here – if the product is not exactly as they had hoped, Hennessy work with the producer to explore ways to make it better – they strive for perfection, but they do it together, as a community. And so it was that to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Hennessy company, they flew producers and distillers to Richard’s home.
But the community in Killavullen have been to Cognac also: Maurice says that when the parish used to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, they would always visit the Hennessy estate. When asked if they called on the way to Lourdes or the way back, Maurice says “On the way there of course, that way they could seek absolution afterwards for having such a good time!”
The brothers both have a strong sense of their Irish links: Maurice tells me about going to Chicago and Boston for St Patrick’s Day and marveling at how on that day, ‘everyone was Irish’ no matter their race or religion, while both spoke of the sadness they felt at seeing lives lost during the Troubles. Two and a half centuries may have passed since their forefather left Killavullen for France, but the Irish connection is still strong. There is a term in wine growing: Terroir. It means the climate, geography, soil conditions, people and production techniques that come together to create a specific wine. In short, it means a sense of place, of origin, of home. Hennessy Cognac may be a global brand, and it’s residence may now be along the banks of the Charente, but its incredible legacy owes no small amount to the terroir of a sleepy village in north Cork and the remarkable man it produced.
Ballymacmoy House itself dates back to 1818, but the original, which was farther upriver, was the home that Richard. The popular version of the demise of the original house says the roof was made from slate taken from the surrounding Nagle Mountains, and was too heavy – to the point that one evening during dinner, the whole top of the house collapsed, killing a goose and a pig and injuring a beggar who happened to be at the door at the time. However, the whole family escaped unharmed. Maurice is quick to point out that this somewhat odd story differs from the more believable one he grew up with – that there was a fire started by a vagrant and the house burnt down. Across the river from the current house is the birthplace of another iconic dynasty – the home of Nano Nagle, after whose family the mountains are named. And Maurice tells me that the hunt he went on as a 12 year old was organised by Dr Nagle, a family friend, and that the Hennessys and the Nagles had been connected for generations.
Cognac can only come from the region it takes its name from, and is a variety of brandy. The law dictates the type of grapes used to make the wine, which is then distilled twice in copper alembic stills and aged in French oak barrels for a mimium of two years. After distillation and during the ageing process the wine is known as eaux de vie. The contents of the barrels are then blended, mixing ages and sources to achieve the best balance. The product is then graded according to several Cognac standards, the best known of which are V.S. (very special or superior), V.S.O.P. (very special or superior old pale), and XO (extra old). A good entry level Cognac to start off with is the Hennessy Fine de Cognac, a delicate blend of some sixty floral, fruity eaux-de-vie pitched somewhere between VS and VSOP. For those looking to spend a bit more there is the very special Richard Hennessy. It is a unique blend of rare eaux-de-vie aged from 40 years to nearly 200 years old. Each carafe is numbered and made of pure hand-blown crystal. According to Talleyrand, celebrated 18th-century French politician and illustrious customer of Hennessy, to enjoy a cognac such as Richard Hennessy one must “cradle the glass in the palm of one’s hand, swirl the spirit to release its full aroma, lift it to one’s nostrils, inhale deeply and then… set it down and discuss its virtues”. One of those virtues being its three thousand euro price tag.
However, Maurice expressed his sadness at anyone buying it as an investment piece: “It is such a beautiful drink, it should not be left to simply sit on a shelf, it is made to be enjoyed”.
Maybe just drink it slowly so.
How to enjoy Cognac:
Asked how best to enjoy a Cognac, Maurice expresses his preference for long drinks: “Hennessy is wonderful in cocktails, and in fact Cognac and rum were the first two drinks ever used in cocktails. There are many great cocktails such as The Horse’s Neck, a racing cocktail we have during the Hennessy Gold Cup.”
The key to a Horse’s Neck is the lemon peel which hangs off the rim of the glass and resembles the neck of a horse hanging into the drink. Fill the glass with ice. Add 50ml of Hennessy Fine De Cognac, and 70ml of ginger ale. Stir well.
As for Frederic, his choice of how to drink Cognac is probably related to the fact that he resides in north Cork, not the south of France, so ice is not paramount: “I like to drink it straight – it is wonderful with elderflower, but you would not always have that in your fridge!”
Founded in 1765, Hennessy has launched a year of celebrations to mark its 250th anniversary under the signature “Crafting the future since 1765”. The rich lineup of events centers on the theme of transmission.
For 250 years, the history of Hennessy has been intimately linked to that of two families. First, the Hennessy family, which has proudly carried on the vision of the House’s founder, Richard Hennessy. An astute businessman, he recognized the potential of Cognac eaux-de-vie, as well as the advantages of the city’s strategic location on the banks of the Charente river, affording easy access to the ocean and international trade routes. Today, Hennessy is present on five continents and develops its business in more than 130 countries.
Since 1800, the Fillioux family has jealously guarded the secrets of selecting and assembling the eaux-de-vie that express Hennessy’s excellence. In the grand tradition of Hennessy milestone cognacs, Yann Fillioux, a seventh-generation member of the family and the current Hennessy Master Blender, has crafted Hennessy 250, an exquisitely refined cognac made from exceptional eaux-de-vie he personally selected during his 50-year career.
Hennessy has kicked off this year’s celebrations by unveiling the signature “Crafting the future since 1765”, a bold message of transmission that emphasizes the avant-garde vision Hennessy has pursued since its founding, inspired by talent and savoir-faire. The cornerstone of the festivities is the Hennessy Tour, which will stop in five countries with close ties to Hennessy: China, Russia, the United States, South Africa and France. From the Guangzhou Opera House and Lincoln Center in New York, to the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg, the over 600-square-meter traveling event presents Hennessy’s heritage through the eyes of contemporary artists whom the House supports. Each stop will feature local artists as well during live performances conceived specially for the event.
Hennessy is also launching a series of ambitious forward-looking projects in 2015. There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Pont-Neuf bottling site, which will ensure increased production and shipping capacity. In addition, Hennessy has acquired a 40-hectare (98 acres) site near Cognac where it will build more than 20 state-of-the-art cellars, doubling storage capacity. Other initiatives focus on the heritage of the House, with completion of the first stage in the Hennessy archives project scheduled for mid-year. A new tour of the centre of Cognac will be unveiled too, offering an unprecedented experience.
Footnote that obviously isn’t part of the article I sent to the paper:
After the interview I decided to try a local pub, see if I could get a Hennessy there. Of the five pubs in the village, three were closed permanently, and only one was open on the night. It was busy, all blokes, and someone whistled at me as I walked in, Wild West style.
Noticing that the bottles lined up on the plywood bar did not include any Cognac, I thought it better to just go native and have a Murphys. As I sat down to write up my notes from the interview, an elderly gent came over and asked me ‘if I was the taxman’. I told him who I was and why I was there. He asked where I was from, and then asked me if I knew any of the folks from my area.
‘Do you know the O’Briens?’ No, I did not. ‘Good, they’re fucking cunts. What about the O’Donovans?’ And so it went, with him asking me if I knew a succession of people who were all ‘cunts’. He noticed my terrible writing, and told me he had the shakes too. I said I was sorry to hear that. He said it was ok, he was still able to drive, and ‘to fuck’ and the ‘women think it’s a vibrator’. The conversation went downhill from there. He was very funny, but completely filthy. I asked if he drank Hennessy, he said no, he drank Powers – ‘I drink the litre bottles and I can still fuck after it’. Fair play, since he must have been about 75. Anyway, it was as good as sample of Killavullen nightlife as you would get, and it made the fact that the Hennessy empire started there all the more remarkable.
So I got to take part in the Irish Whiskey Academy here in my hometown, along with a bunch of whisk(e)y writers, bloggers and promoters. It was a lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in whiskey….and a grand to spare. This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner shortly before Christmas. The photos were all taken by me, which might explain why they are rubbish.
Every Christmas I watch Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the same sense of wonder I had when I was a kid. As someone cursed with a relentlessly sweet tooth, I still like to imagine that the inside of any factory that produces my favorite things would be as magical. Obviously tastes change and people grow, and after careful consultation with my cholesterol levels, I switched my allegiances to a more mature indulgence – whiskey. So to get access to a distillery is a treat indeed. The distillery is a mysterious thing. Access to any modern production facilities is a rare event; for members of the public it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of the inner workings of any plant; health and safety laws, Lean production and a wariness about transparency meant that unless you have Bosco’s Magic Door, you aren’t getting inside. But one of the greatest distilleries in the world is changing all that.
Midleton Distillery’s Irish Whiskey Academy opened in 2013, and since then it has educated and entertained hundreds of drinks professionals, writers, bartenders, and sales people. The scope of the academy is now being widened to include ‘amateur enthusiasts’ – or ‘lushes’, as we are better known – like myself. The academy building fittingly sits between the historic distillery building – now home to the heritage centre – and the newer plant which is one of the largest, most efficient in the world, having just tweaked their processes to see a reduction in energy requirements per litre of pure alcohol by a whopping 20%.
The academy itself is a converted grain manager’s office, and our tutor was Dave McCabe, whose youth belies his incredible breadth of knowledge. I was on the course with whiskey bloggers, writers and industry insiders, and no matter how obscure or scientific the question, he knew the answer. With beautifully illustrated chalkboards in the classroom section of the facility, he brought us through the history of whiskey – nationally, locally and globally – as well as a refreshingly straightforward breakdown of the production of whiskey in east Cork.
We started with a walkthrough of the old distillery, learning about how whiskey was produced on that site for 200 years. We passed the distiller’s cottage, where Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett was born and raised, through the courtyard where former distillery manager Sandy Ross landed after an exploding pot still blew him out a window, leaving him flat on his back on the cobbles. He was given the rest of the day off, but showed up for work the next day. It takes hard men to make the hard stuff.
Back in the classroom we covered the raw materials, as well as the brewing and fermentation process, then it was on with the high-vis vests, phones into the lockers and off to the new plant, where we visited the grains depot, brewhouse, fermentation facility, and even had a stillhouse meeting with current Master Distiller Brian Nation. Brian is a busy man, who switches between the scientific demands of running one of the biggest distilleries in the world and the promotional aspect of the job, sharing his knowledge and passion for whiskey around the globe. And he isn’t the only whiskey guru we had access to; we also met Kevin O’Gorman, a man who has so much energy and enthusiasm for his work that it’s hard to imagine him having the patience to watch a kettle boil. But patience he has. As Irish Distillers’s head of maturation, Kevin is charged with keeping watch over the thousands of barrels of alcohol as they slowly mature for the legally required minimum of three years – and often much longer. Kevin watches over the casks as they sleep through the years, monitoring room temperature as the wood of the staves slowly inhales and exhales the liquid, giving it colour, character and life. His domain is the warehouses packed with massive bourbon, port and sherry casks from around the world, loaded on pallets in lots of four, and then stacked seven high.
He watches on helpless as up to a percentage of each cask is lost to evaporation, an amount known as the angel’s share. As long as whiskey has been made, this has been part of the process. There is not way to stop it.
Another frustration comes in the repair of casks. Some of them simply can’t take the pressure of their sleeping brethren above, and begin to split. If the damage is small, and accessible to the master cooper, then it may be repaired. But if the split is bad, and the cask is behind or beneath many others, they simply have to let the pressure take its toll, and watch on as thousands of euro worth of whiskey seeps out. It’s can’t be an easy job.
We had a tasting with Kevin in one of the warehouses, number 42 to be precise, cracking open a port pipe, a sherry butt, and a bourbon cask. It’s hard to describe how special it was. There, in that vast modern cathedral, we filled glasses straight from the barrel, and stood there silently sipping, the only noise a sporadic beep from the security system off in the distance. The flavors of the whiskey was almost enough to make your ears pop.
Centuries ago, Irish monks copied the design of Moorish alembic stills to distill their ale into uisce beatha. Later, it was casked for storage, and whiskey as we know it was born. Not much has changed; the ingredient used by the epicurean alchemists in Midleton are the same – water, grain, wood and time. In a world obsessed with speeding up production, there is much to celebrate here. The race to the bottom in our demand for faster food and cheaper products has led to standards falling in both. Not so here – this may be a massive operation, but there is the same respect for the craft, the product and the consumer as there ever was. The academy is part of this celebration of tradition and technique – it has a level of openness, transparency and honesty that you will almost never encounter in large companies.
We rounded out the day with pot still tastings, then it was back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. Our lodgings were the aristocratic surrounds of the Castlemartyr Resort, a building whose history, like that of whiskey, is another rare blend of science and religion, having previously been home to Robert Boyle, of Boyle’s Law fame, and in later years becoming a Carmelite Monastery. Another part of the academy package is dinner in a premium restaurant – for us it was Ballymaloe, which so much has been written about I don’t need to add anything, other than it has to be experienced to be believed.
The following day we started with a coopering demonstration by master cooper Ger Buckley. Ger is a fifth generation cooper, and can take a barrel apart and put it back together in moments. He talked us through the craft and history of coopering, reinforcing the sense that little has changed in either the tools or the barrels themselves in centuries.
Afterwards we met with archivist Carol Quinn, who introduced us to some of the incredible characters, stories and history of Irish Distillers. She spoke about Paddy O’Flaherty, a consummate showman who understood the power of marketing and PR long before anyone else in the industry, to the point where the whiskey he sold took on his name – we even got to see the contract that allowed the company to use his name as a trademark. Carol is also recording the stories of the more recent characters, as she is recording an oral history of the formers workers in the Midleton plant, capturing all their stories and lore before it is all lost in the sands of time.
Then it was on to more tastings, site visits – including the spiritstore and casking facility – and lunch in the heritage centre, complete with ice cream cones served in Midleton Rare boxes.
Our last module was blending, where we were broken into teams of four and given four different types of spirits to make a single blend with. After much nose work, and even more tasting, my team finally came up with a blend of half sherry cask-aged pot still and half bourbon pot still. We even gave it a name – The Kurgan – which you will know from Scottish history as the Russian bad guy in Highlander. It even came with a tagline – ‘there can be only one’. Well, it was either that or ‘it will take your head off’.
We got samples of our blends to take home, and while I have yet to find the right occasion to enjoy mine, I have no doubt that the memories of an extraordinary few days in Midleton will last a lot longer. The lessons taken from the academy aren’t simply the science and the history of whiskey – it’s an appreciation of the drink itself, and what it means to the Irish people. Whiskey is liquid history. It records our highs and lows, our struggles and success, our innovation, creativity and strength of spirit. Its story is one of collisions and unions – between science and religion, alcohol and wood, empire and freedom, grain and water. The academy, nestled as it is between the past and future of Irish Distillers, teaches you how these elements blend together to make this most Irish of libations, its significance to our identity, and what is yet to come.
THE FACTS: A range of courses are available depending on the individual’s level of knowledge, with the first ‘Enthusiasts’ course taking place earlier this month. Participants have the opportunity to meet some of the distillery team, learn about brewing, fermentation, distillation and blending, watch a cooperage demonstration and enjoy a tutored whiskey tasting with one of the production Masters. As part of the package, participants will stay in five star accommodation, visit one of the area’s finest restaurants and at the end of the course, they will receive a personalised bottle of Irish whiskey.
One-day ‘Discoverer’ courses, for those who have minimal knowledge about Irish whiskeys but want to learn more, are available from February 2015 while four-hour afternoon courses are also available. See http://www.irishwhiskeyacademy.com/ for full details.
Dana Brunetti, CEO of Trigger Street, Kevin Spacey’s production company, visits Midleton Distillery:
Also an innovator in the realm of social networking, Brunetti launched Trigger Street Labs in 2002, a platform for feedback and exposure for undiscovered writing and filmmaking talent.
In 2009, he produced the film The Social Network, the story of how Facebook was created. The film was directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin and based Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires.
He also worked with Mezrich in 2008, when he produced the film 21, based off his New York Times best selling book Bringing Down The House.
However, he also produced House Of Cards….and Fifty Shades Of Grey.
One of the strangest aspects of memory is how we can be transported back in time by our senses. The smell of vinyl, the cup of tea your parents make – you close your eyes and you are back in a moment from decades before.
This Thursday night, whiskey aficionados are being offered the chance to sample of piece of Cork’s proud distilling tradition when the local branch of the Irish Whiskey Society are hosting a taste of our distilling heritage.
And there is an incredible heritage there – both in the landscape of the city, the distillers, the salesmen and the people who drank it, from the ordinary joe to heads of state.
Take proud Corkonian Jack Lynch. He was famously a man of the people. There is a great story in Frank Dunlop’s book, Yes Taoiseach, about when Jack was on a campaign tour with the rather aloof Erskine Childers in Cork. Crowds cheered the bus as it moved along, and Jack waved to his people, while Childers sat there. Finally Lynch grew tired of Childers’ chilly demeanour, and said ‘Wave Erskine, Wave’. ‘But Jack’ the then president said, ‘I don’t know them’.
Dunlop’s book also details Jack’s love of whiskey, specifically the iconic everyman brand of Paddy. Lynch used to say of an evening that they would ‘get past Tipperary’, referring to the map of Ireland on the bottle, using Tipp as a marker for the evening’s quota. As Carol Quinn, chief archivist with Irish Distillers Ltd in Midleton points out, that map was crucial in an Ireland that did not have 100% literacy; people who couldn’t read the then name of the tipple, which was Cork Distilleries Company Old Irish Whiskey, could simply point to the bottle on the shelf and ask for a measure of ‘map of Ireland whiskey’.
It was another charismatic Corkman who changed the name. In 1882, a young Patrick J. O’Flaherty joined the Cork Distilleries Company as a travelling salesman. Paddy Flaherty, as he became more commonly known, was born in Cork in 1850, the eldest son of Daniel J O ‘Flaherty and his wife Anne M.B. Long. He attended the day school at which his father taught, at 7 Maylor Street, in the centre of Cork city. Paddy was presumably influenced by his mother’s family, who were publicans, as he decided to join the Cork Distilleries Company as a rep in December 1882 at a salary of £150 a year. One year into his job he moved to a house on the Blackrock Road, which he named after his favourite song ‘Carraigdhoun’.
Paddy covered an area stretching from Youghal to Mallow selling the rather unwieldy named ‘Cork Distilleries Company Old Irish Whiskey’. Paddy was a great salesman – in an age long before marketing or PR, he understood how to work the media. When he was going to a town or village to promote the drink, he would send word ahead that he was coming, then arrive to cheering crowds, as where Paddy went, whiskey was sure to flow. His salubriousness came at a cost to the company – his expenses were always well over the staff allowance, but Paddy was so good at his job that they let him do what he did best – foster a love of whiskey in people.
His fame grew to such an extent that the drink he was promoting became simply known as Paddy, and so upon his retirement, the Cork Distilleries Company bought the trademark from him.
As for Jack Lynch, his lasting monument comes in the shape of a bronze statue seated in the mall of Blackpool Shopping Centre, where he sits all day, reading the Cork Examiner. It seems fitting that a whiskey drinker like himself be located there – Blackpool was a hub of distilling at one time, and although much of that was in decline when Jack was born in 1917 in Shandon, he would have grown up surrounded by the culture of distilling and coopering. A stone’s throw from where Jack sits in the shopping centre was one of the great distilleries of Cork – Hewitt’s Watercourse Distillery.
You’d have to look hard to find any evidence of its presence today, but if you look carefully the next time you visit the New Furniture Centre, you will notice part of the old wall and barred windows of the distillery.
Hewitt’s was not the only distillery in the area – if you ever visit a little close of houses off Thomas Davis Street named Distillery Close, you will see in one corned of the square there is an old stone wall and arch. This is all that remains of The Green Distillery, which was founded in 1796.
Back towards town there was Daly’s of John Street, started in 1807, the cooperage of which boasted the talents of one Seamus Murphy, legendary Cork sculptor. Apart from St Dominick’s Distillery at Crosse’s Green, nearly all of Cork’s distilling industry was on the northside: On the North Mall there was Wise’s, one of the first distilleries in Cork, while back out towards Mallow there was the Kilnap distillery, and closer to town the Spring Lane distillery. This was operated by former Lord Mayor and Freeman Of Cork, French Huguenot Sir Anthony Perrier.
Perrier was a man of vision – while all distillers at that time used the classic pot still – known for its fat belly and swan neck – Perrier patented an updated version, which he hoped would be more efficient than the pot version, used for a thousand years since pilgrim Irish monks borrowed the idea from the Moors. Moorish alchemists had used it to distill essential oils – but the monks ingeniously used it to distill a weak ale into something far more flavoursome. Casking it for winter, they realized that the wood and ageing added to the flavours, and so whiskey was born.
But Perrier’s vision of a new still was not perfect, and the invention did not take off. A Scottish man named Robert Stein modified the plans for his own version, but it was not until a Calais born and Trnity educated Irishman named Aeneas Coffey, whose family had their roots in Barryroe in west Cork, saw the potential.
He designed his own column still, patented it and changed the world of distilling forever. Coffey knew plenty about stills – as an excise man for the British rulers, he had travelled up and down the country smashing legal and illegal stills for years, often risking life and limb to do so. He had been beaten, stabbed and had his skull fractured on different occasions. So he was not a man who gave up easily.
He perfected his invention, which was cleaner and more efficient than the pot stills, and then tried to sell it to distillers. But the Irish, ever slow to embrace technology and eschew tradition, pooh-poohed his work.
There was even a campaign of slander against the alcohol produced by the Coffey still, as it is still known – distillers called it ‘silent spirit’ as it ‘had no tongue to speak of from whence it came’. They said the purer alcohol produced by the still had zero flavor, and was therefore not to be trusted, and some even claimed the liquor it produced was made from refuse. Undeterred, Coffey too his invention to Scotland, and the canny Scots instantly was the potential. They used the cleaner, cheaper alcohol to soften their peaty, heathery whiskey, and so the great Scottish blends were born. Their lighter flavor gave them global appeal, and Ireland lost their edge.
Back in Ireland, the industry was heading for a steady decline – there were economic factors, such as the imperial taxes we faced, the Famine, the struggles for freedom, the economic war, Prohibition and changing drinking habits.
But another Corkman also helped to change the fortunes of distilling across Ireland; the Apostle of Temperance, Fr Theobald Mathew. The Cork Capuchin Friar used his charisma and zeal to turn people from the demon drink, claiming it ruined lives. But the impact on the brewing and distilling trades, including coopers, delivery men, publicans etc, suffered from the Total Abstinence Movement.
Walter Thomas Meyler, a Dublin tea and wine merchant, published a pamphlet some years after Fr Mathew’s death in 1856. In it he wrote, “His disciples spread the monomania like a simona over the land. Brewers, grocers and country shopkeepers were paralyzed, thousands fled the country and their creditors. About one hundred distilleries and breweries had to close down, their owners and workers reduce to destitution.”
The glory days of independent distilling were ending. Consolidation led to the creation of the Cork Distilleries Company, and the gradual closure of the facilities. Hewitt’s was leveled to make way for the Mallow road out of the city, the others have almost completely disappeared. But on Thursday night, you can taste a piece of Cork history, and be regaled by the stories of Cork’s long forgotten whiskey brands and distilleries. We may have lost many of our iconic distilleries, but their spirit, like our own, lives on.
Taste Cork Distilleries Co. Old Irish Pure Pot Still Whisky as available in Cork over 100 years ago; sample discontinued expressions like Hewitt’s Irish Whiskey and a rare 10 year old Paddy expression from the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Those in attendance will also get to sample a dram of Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy and be one of the first to enjoy the 30th Anniversary Edition of Midleton Very Rare – the very first to bear the signature of Master Distiller Brian Nation.
A Taste of Cork’s Whiskey History at the Porterhouse, Sheares Street, hosted by Cork Whiskey Society.
Date: Thursday, September 25th Time: Doors open: 7:30pm (please wait in the bar before this time so we can set up the room) Tasting begins: 8:00pm sharp Tickets:Members: €15 Non-members: €25 Reserve and pay for your place at https://v1.bookwhen.com/iwscork.
In The Untouchables, a journalist asks Prohibition enforcer Elliot Ness what he will do if the American government goes ahead with plans to repeal their anti-drink laws.
‘I think I’ll have a drink’ is his pithy reply.
Calais-born and Dublin raised Aeneas Coffey – the scourge of the distilling trade in Ireland – went one better when he retired from his post as enforcer of the British empire’s suffocating excise laws; he opened a distillery.
But Coffey, a tenacious tax collector who battled the clergy and risked life and limb to obtain the crown coin from distilleries while also smashing poitin stills across the country, was not planning on building an empire on whiskey. Rather he wanted to perfect his vision of a new form of distilling, one that was cheaper, faster, safer and purer than the current form – and his invention would almost destroy the 1,000-year-old Irish distilling trade.
To understand what Coffey did, you need to go back several centuries. Around 1AD, the Moors swept across Europe, bringing with them their technology and knowledge of alchemy. One invention was the alembic still, which used steam to strip essential oils from herbs and other materials. The origins of the term alchohol lie in these times – the word is derived from the Arabic word al-kuhl, which today is termed kohl, and is a very finely crushed up used in the east to darken eyelids. Note: This has nothing to do with the dark circles under your eyes after a night on the hooch.
As Muslims, it never crossed their minds to use this apparatus to purify liquor – but Irish monks who came across the stills, after the Moors were driven from mainland Europe, were not restricted by any such laws.
The monks, guardians of knowledge throughout the dark ages, brought the alembic still to Ireland, where it was refined until it became the iconic pot still, the fat-bellied swan-necked copper apparatus that gave Ireland it’s first and possibly greatest export – whiskey. It’s worth pointing out, for the sake of fairness, that the monks in Scotland appear to have been working on the same invention; and as a result, both countries created their respective variations on liquid gold at around the same time. In the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I was quite the fan of Irish whiskey, and kept a stock of it in her court. By the 1700s, Czar Peter The Great of Russia was quaffing it, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson had insisted the word whiskey be placed in his famous dictionary, and declared ‘the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor.’
By the 19th Century whiskey ruled the world, and in the 1880s after a crop disease ruined France’s supply of cognac, we were producing the world’s number one drink.
But at this stage things were already starting to turn. First the Famine, the crippling taxation laws of the British empire imposed by anti-alcohol advocate Lloyd George, our own temperance movement led by Fr Mathew, the Great War, Prohibition, the Irish War Of Independence, the Civil War, the economic war with Britain, our biggest export market, and, into the Second World War, the rise of the great Scotch blends – the root of whose success was Coffey’s creation. But like the man himself, whose ancestors hailed from Barryroe in west Cork, the Coffey Still, as it became known, has its origins in the Rebel County.
It was actually an improvement of an invention by Sir Anthony Perrier, one of the Cork Hugenots, a distiller and merchant prince of note. He operated the Spring Lane distillery, one of many whiskey producing operations scattered across Cork city and county, but Perrier saw that the triple-pot-still method of distillation was costly, and tried to make it more efficient by using columns. His invention was not a success, but it inspired Scotsman Robert Stein to try and create his own version. He was not successful either, but a display he gave was witnessed by Aeneas Coffey and inspired him to build his own, just as Steve Jobs was inspired by the user interface at Xerox to create the Mackintosh.
Coffey had smashed enough illicit stills and surveyed hundreds of distilleries, so he knew how inefficient, expensive and dangerous the stills could be. He could instantly see Stein’s creation had massive implications, if only it worked. So when he retired from the excise office after 25 years of confrontation – including one incident in Donegal when he was stabbed twice in the thigh and received a fractured skull from an angry mob as he went about his duties – he opened the Dock Distillery on Grand Canal Street. After he had it perfected, he tried to sell his invention to local distillers. The big four distilleries in Dublinspurned his creation, seeing it as an affront to a thousand years of tradition.
Also, Coffey’s still produced alcohol so pure that they deemed it ‘silent spirit’ – as it had ‘no tongue with which to speak of whence it came’. It lacked the elements that gave new-make pot still spirit its distinct flavours, and many in the industry blackened its name, claiming that because Coffey’s end product was so pure there was no way of knowing what went into it – many claimed rotten potatoes and refuse were used. This, of course, was nonsense – but it did lead to the beginnings of the struggle within that held the Irish whiskey industry back while their canny neighbours charged ahead.
Always ones to spot a bargain, the Scots took to the Coffey still straight away; but they realized the alcohol produced was incredibly pure, so they blended their peaty pot still whisky with the ‘silent spirit’ – now known as grain whiskey – and so the great Scotch blends were born. The Irish distillers turned up their noses, and have been lagging behind every since. Scotch went from strength to strength.
During World War Two a cash-strapped Winston Churchill saw the potential tax haul from flogging scotch, and exported it to every country he could. Americans in Europe during the war made it their drink of choice, and drank it still when they went home, and so it became a cultural icon – a symbol of masculinity, maturity, with a worldly sophistication. Scotch had won the war, and whiskey was left in its dust. After World War Two, only seven Irish distilleries remained from approximately 160 in 1880.
As for Coffey, he was never hailed as a brilliant genius who revolutionized an industry, in fact he was nearly hated more as an inventor than he was as a still-smashing tax collector for the British empire. Disillusioned after being rejected by his own, he settled in Britain and faded into obscurity. Like Virgil’s Trojan hero, from whence his name came, he was left searching for a place to call home after the greatness of earlier days:
I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
His invention is still used across the drinks industry today, distilling alcohol for whiskey, scotch, gin and industrial purposes. As for the Irish whiskey industry, it finally embraced the still, and the blends that brought the Scots such success. The Irish industry is thriving now; perhaps this is tribute enough to the man who tried to save it and was shunned for his efforts.
I spotted an Irish-looking name in an article in The Helsinki Times about how the Finnish capital was about to get its first distillery in 125 years, thanks to two Finns and a chap named Séamus Holohan. I contacted Séamus and chatted to him about chasing his dream to the frozen north.
Ireland and Finland have more in common than you’d think. Despite being on opposite sides of the European Union, we both punch well above our weight culturally – they gave the world the great composer Sibelius (and Eurovision metallers Lordi), we gave the world James Joyce (and Johnny Logan). And we both enjoy a warming drink during those long winter nights; we have whiskey, they have vodka. But one Corkman is about to change that, as he brings Irish distilling wisdom to what will be Helsinki’s first distillery in more than 125 years.
Séamus Holohan is one of three people behind The Helsinki Distilling Company, and he, along with two Finns, is bringing one of Ireland’s oldest traditions to the far edges of Europe, but how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?
“I¹ll cut a long story short here but it was basically so that I met my future wife in Paris many years ago while studying and working after graduating from UCC with a BComm degree. When I finished studying in France I wanted some more adventure and Sigrid, a Finn, had moved to Stockholm to study.
“So I headed up there with the intention of seeing what it would be like for 6 months or so. Eighteen years, having started and sold three IT Security companies, and three kids later I felt like it was time for something new. For the past 10 years I had a running discussion with two Finnish friends regarding starting a distillery and now it was good timing for all of us.
“The idea progressed from a fun idea to a concrete plan over the years. Eventually having found a building to house the distillery, I moved over to Helsinki with my family and we started the business over a year ago.”
Séamus’s own interest in distilling was part inspired by another Corkman who left Ireland and created a drinks empire. In 1765, Killavullen mercenary Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy Cognac in France.
“My own interest in distilling started on a trip to Cognac during a summer holiday break during secondary school. With some friends we visited the Hennessy factory and then went to see a small producer.
“The small producer, Balluet, was fascinating – everything from the raw materials to the distillation equipment, I found extremely interesting. And just as interesting was the manner in which the owner was really proud of what he was doing. To me it seemed like something that would be great to do – to produce something concrete, a real product that you could take pride in. That desire never left me.”
But this isn’t the reckless pursuit of a dream – Séamus and his two partners have put a lot of work and research into this venture: “Mikko Mykkänen is our Master Distiller and has been involved in the production of alcohol for many years. I have experience of starting companies and we have a third partner, Kai Kilpinen, who is helping on the
“Before launching The Helsinki Distilling Company, Mikko and myself embarked on a road-trip in Sweden to see many of the small distilleries that have appeared there making whisky over the last decade. It was inspiring to see the amount of energy that the owners had and it confirmed for us that there is a viable market for premium craft distillates.
And the whiskey renaissance back home also fueled the vision: “In addition I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTE that John Teeling gave a number of years ago where he said many interesting things about the global whiskey industry, and also the Cooley distillery was a fantastic story.”
Despite the renewed interest in whiskey back home, Séamus knew that his family now had their roots down in Scandinavia: “It was never really considered to start the distillery in Ireland for family reasons. My kids love going to Ireland and have even spent some time attending school in Ballygiblin but are more accustomed to Sweden and Finland. And since I have been working in the Nordics for so long I know more about doing business here than at home.
“In addition my partners are Finns and living here. Finland has very few distilleries so it is something new and exotic for the Finns to have one producing whiskey and gin in the capital.
“In Ireland we would be one more distillery in addition to those already in existence and starting up. I¹m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to deal with a good deal of scepticism and red-tape before starting the distillery.
“But now we have it running and have been producing premium gin and our whiskey is starting its maturation. We are also lucky to have the distillery very close to the city centre and in the middle of the food culture capital of Finland Teurastamo, which means ‘abattoir’ and is the old slaughterhouse area for Helsinki.”
Setting up a distillery here is more straightforward, but so is our language – Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn. So did Séamus struggle with it?
“Coming from Sweden, I suppose it wasn¹t as much of a culture shock as coming directly from Ireland. I had visited Finland many times with my wife during the years and have many friends here. Having said that, it is one thing to visit somewhere and another to live there. It is true that you can get by quite well with English and Swedish here, but it would be great to speak some Finnish. However, Finnish is a fenno-ugric language, quite difficult to learn, and there are very few similarities with any of the Indo-European languages. My aim is to start a night course next year and hopefully pick up enough to get by doing everyday things – that will be the fourth time I have started a Finnish course and I hope I make more progress this time. Our kids attend Swedish school as Finland is officially a bi-lingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”
And the language wasn’t the only stumbling block: “On the cultural side of things, Finland is very different to Ireland. But I really like the sauna culture. I¹m no longer amazed at people being naked, hitting themselves with birch twigs, while sweating profusely in really hot saunas, before running outside to temperatures of less than minus twenty five degrees, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it¹s a good idea to take up winter sports here to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”
And those long, dark winters are contributory factors in the regulation of the drinks industry in Finland – to the point that the state actually controls the sale of liquor.
“Yes, the government does really control the alcohol industry. Until 1995 it was illegal to have a distillery with the distilling only done by the state monopoly of Altia. Today, Alko, is the state monopoly for the sale of stronger alcohol (above 5% vol.) to private persons. It is now possible to sell directly to restaurants and bars however. And the prices are kept high with duty and taxes.”
So that much we have in common – in Ireland about 17 euro of the cost of a bottle of whiskey goes to the taxman, and while the government here hopes to crack down on below-cost selling by the large retailers, the Finns found another way to bypass the excise and get cheap booze – the ferry to Estonia. Although Séamus is quick to point out that this practise is dying out.
“People still get on the ferry to Estonia but perhaps not as often as they used to due to some price harmonisation taking place some years ago.”
And as for the whisky they are making: “As elsewhere, there is a growing number of people who are willing to pay more for better quality products and also there is a growing interest in locally produced goods. We are making gin, whiskey and applejack. Where possible we are using local ingredients so our gin for example has a Finnish lingonberry twist. Our applejack is made from apples from Salo which is about an hours drive from Helsinki.”
And as for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately 2 million liters of whiskey per year – 1.7 million litres is sold through Alko. Most of the whisky consumed is Scotch blends, with Canadian whiskies in second place. Irish whiskey is sold to the tune of 145.000 litres through Alko.
“Other whiskies, including Finnish, amount to less than 6000 litres so there is some room for growth. There is a growing interest in whiskey in Finland. And, as in Ireland, the Finns are looking to try new products and the product range is excellent in many bars and restaurants.”
In whiskey tasting terms, the finish is the name for the epicurean effects of the drink once it has been swallowed; the mouthfeel and lingering flavours that expand on the palate. As Séamus and his business partners begin casking their new rye whisky, they will be hoping that when the time comes for it to hit the market, whisky drinkers will enjoy a perfect Finnish.
Séamus reveals what Finalnd – and the world – can expect from the Helsinki Distilling Company: “For our whiskey we are using Finnish malt from Lähti. The malt is not
peated but we may experiment in the future with peated malts. Some of the
best rye in the world is grown in Finland.
“So from the start we were determined to make a Finnish whiskey and use Finnish raw materials without simply trying to copy an Irish whiskey or to make Scotch. There is no reason why excellent whiskies cannot be made here. For the rye whiskey we include some barley in the mash to help with the process. Our ingredients are chosen from the best local ingredients available with the rye being custom malted for our requirements. We are using both American and French new oak barrels that are medium toasted. The French oak come from the areas of Alliers and Limousin. Both American and French are offered to cask owners and so far the French have proven more popular. Later on we
will be using different barrels including old sherry and port casks for finishing. We are working with a local cooper from outside Turku to source the barrels.
“We are using a pot still that has an attached column. This allows us to use either the pot still and produce that kind of whiskey or to use the column. Our final products will resemble more American Rye whiskies than Irish or Scottish.”
Footnote: The Irish Timesalso spoke to Séamus, but obviously my interview is wayyyyy better.