The year of living dangerously

Whoever decided to launch one of the best-known luxury brands in the Irish whiskey category on budget day must have quite the sense of humour. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, the economy is in the process of being intubated by the State, and while this budget day may not have been the bloodbath that those in 2009-2015 were, it is the beginning of an all-too familiar process of rebalancing. Perhaps there was a spring in the steps of the marketing team at Irish Distillers because they sensed in advance that taxation on spirits would remain static – it was the least the State could do after almost every distiller in Ireland turned their stills over to the creation of hand sanitiser before the summer, when it was impossible to come by.

But it still takes gumption to launch a 180 bottle of hooch when hundreds of thousands of people are out of work. Still, this was a luxury brand launched in the 1980s, when there were also hundreds of thousands out of work – although it cost a little less then:

A page in the Cork Examiner after the launch of MVR in 1984.

The background to Midleton Very Rare is: In the dark days of the 1980s, we needed a luxury brand. The Scots had many, so we launched MVR in 1984. It is not very rare. It is ubiquitous. Also, it’s a blend. But it really isn’t aimed at the diehard whiskey nerd – as an annual release, in my experience it is bought as a gift for someone to mark an anniversary, wedding, birth, becoming president of the golf club…you get the idea. This is not something the tragic pot still fetishist is going to queue overnight to get their clammy, webbed flippers on. But it is important – as I pointed out the last time I reviewed it, it has aura, and it has taken decades to build that up. 

Just seven short years ago Brian Nation became master distiller of Midleton Distillery, taking over from his predecessor Barry Crockett, who launched MVR all those years before. Then, in June this year came the bombshell news that Nation was moving on, to take up the role of master distiller with O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company. Apparently his role was much more than that – he would be central to the build of their new distillery, and was a chance to make his stamp on a new brand, new products, and a new world. I’d never presume to know what it was that tempted him, but the freedom of it must have been part of the appeal – in Midleton he must have spent much of his time ensuring consistency and while his experiments in the microdistillery gave him some creative wriggle room, running a massive operation like Midleton must be hard. Add to that the PR work of a master distiller – international travel becomes a lot less glamorous when you do it all the time, especially if you have young kids. So I can see why he would make the move. I suspect that he will do great things in the US. 

So MVR 2020 is his swansong. I’ll let the press release take it from here: 

Chosen from the most outstanding quality single pot still and single grain Irish whiskeys laid down over the past four decades in Midleton, Co Cork, Midleton Very Rare 2020 showcases an expression of whiskeys aged from 13 to 35 years in lightly charred ex-bourbon American oak barrels. This year, Brian Nation selected a higher pot still inclusion when compared to previous vintages, while also increasing the use of refill barrels amongst his choice of casks.

Bottled at 40% ABV, Midleton Very Rare 2020 is available online and in Ireland now, and will hit shelves in the UK, USA, Global Travel Retail, Australia, Germany and Canada in the coming months at the RRP of €180.

In a break from tradition and in response to consumer demand for the annual vintage to be made available earlier in the year in question, newly appointed Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman will reveal Midleton Very Rare 2021 in spring next year, honouring a rare changing of the guard at the iconic Midleton Distillery.

Confirmation, if you needed it, that this is one whiskey where the year it was released rather than the year it was distilled is the important factor for consumers. 

Some tasting notes; it’s a bit early in the week to start necking whiskey, so these are the official IDL notes and are thus possibly slightly more coherent than my own: 

Aroma

Initial top notes of cane sugar and vanilla intertwined with pepper and nutmeg spices, complimented by sweet orchard fruits and white chocolate fudge all layered over polished antique wood notes, showcasing an intriguing balance between spirit and wood thanks to the complex interaction from the many years spent in the finest oak casks.

Taste

Initial burst of tangy fruit sweetness of orange peel and sweet pear creating a succulent texture while the pot still spices build overtime adding a mild prickle of chilli oil. The presence of the charred oak remains constant in the background adding balance to the fruits and spices.

Finish

Satisfyingly long finish with the fruits slowly fading, allowing the oak and spices to linger until the very end.

In short, it is nice. Of course the supreme irony of MVR 2020 is not the launch day coinciding with a budget, but rather why would anyone want to commemorate this disaster of a year?