A long goodbye

 

-NO REPRODUCTION FEE –
Barry Crockett, Jameson Master Distiller pictured at the Midleton Distillery, Cork laying down casks for 2030, Jameson’s 250th Anniversary
Pic. John Allen /John Sheehan Photography

 

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.”

Method Man

Midleton Distillery Master Of Science Dave Quinn in the lab. 

Science is something of a dirty word in the whiskey business. Consider the life and work of Aeneas Coffey. After risking life and limb as a gauger, he applied all he knew about distilling (and a lot of what Scots inventor Robert Stein knew) to a new type of still. It was cleaner and more efficient, and was rejected wholesale by the distillers here. The Scots, however, were more receptive to his more efficient and cost-effective invention, and the rest is history.

In Ireland, Coffey’s still was seen as an affront to whiskey, making silent spirit that had no tongue to speak from whence it came – or, to put it another way, it was so pure that you supposedly had no idea what was in it.

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An ad for a Cork distillery rejecting column stills and all their works.

To this day, the spirit produced by the Coffey still is seen by whiskey drinkers as the child of a lesser god, rather than the result of a brilliant invention. Of course, its purity does give it a lighter flavour profile in comparison to single malt or the spicy mixed mash of pot still whiskey, but it’s still an example of how the scientific advancement of distilling is not always welcome.

Modern ‘advancements’ haven’t helped the average whiskey drinker change their quasi-Luddite minds – accelerated aging techniques, which range from spirit mixed with wood pellets, to ultrasound used on barrels, to the oldschool sherry hack of paxarette, are really just ways of cheating time. And time, as any human being will tell you, cannot be cheated.

But what is it that makes a whiskey great, beyond any subjective preferences, beyond any labels or marketing? What is the secret to a great whiskey? 

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Dave Quinn in the Irish Whiskey Academy during the Method & Madness press trip to Midleton.

If you wanted to ask someone, Dave Quinn is a good person to start with. He was part of that first generation of distillers who focussed on the idea of whiskey as a molecular event that needed to be explored – people who saw distilling as a science as much as an art.

From Longford, he went to college in Galway where he studied biochemistry and then biotechnology. Moving to Cork he started working with Irish Distillers in the 1980s, before transferring to Bushmills – then owned by IDL – in 1996, before transferring back to Midleton in 2002, where he is now their Master Of Science. But what exactly is the science of whiskey?

“Science is just a way of saying we are trying to find a better way of understanding what’s happening right down at the molecular level – understanding the link between what we describe as flavour and taste, and what are the congeners, what are the flavour compounds that actually contribute to that, to what you perceive as taste, flavour, aroma, and we have a certain level of understanding of that but not a complete one by any manner or means,” he says.

Of course, making whiskey isn’t a one step affair – and parts of the process are easier to understand than others, particularly those at the front end.

“It’s easier to understand the biochemistry of brewing and yeast fermentation, what happens to the yeast, the compounds it produces. Where things start to get a bit more tricky is when we get into wood maturation. We have an understanding of some of the wood compounds that contribute but there is a lot of other wood compounds that we don’t fully understand or know about.”

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Dave Quinn and Dagmara Dabrowska in a promo image for the Method & Madness range. 

But long before the spirit comes into contact with wood, Quinn and his colleague Dr Dagmara Dabrowska have a way of studying distilling. Squirrelled away within the Midleton campus is a pilot plant – effectively a fully functioning scale model of the distillery, in the style of Derek Zoolander’s school for ants. Initially created as part of their proposed energy saving programme, it began life as a 1/2000th version of the grain columns, and it is here that much of their work takes place.

“We have a pilot plant up there, where we have small pot stills and a column still so we can work on them there without even coming down here to the microdistillery. The pilot plant is very much more … automated isn’t the right word, but with more places where we can take samples and monitor a lot of the variables like temperature and pressure. With the energy saving programme we did a lot of that work in the pilot plant.”

The energy saving was one of the most impressive feats of an already impressive operation in Midleton. The pilot plant was commissioned to conduct R&D into the proposals, which saw them shave 20% off their energy use. Dr Dabrowska is credited with much of the success of that project. As Head of Analytical and Technical Development, she helped find new ways to transfer energy between the columns – a piece of equipment that, Aeneas Coffey would be delighted to know, produces more spirit than any other part of Midleton distillery. Their colossal grain output was finally celebrated with the recent release of both the 31-year-old and 11-year-old single grain bottlings, the distillery’s first under their own name (the Irish Whiskey Society released a Midleton grain bottling two years ago).

Launched under the Method & Madness incubator brand – a space for IDL to experiment with their output – the grain whiskeys were a striking departure from the heritage pot-still brands like Redbreast and Yellow Spot to a more modern aesthetic and an embracing of science. But whiskey is all science, despite what the marketing department might tell you. The modern distillery tries to site itself in a romantic pastoral dreamscape, where the distiller hand operates all aspects and divines the perfect cut using only his senses. The truth is rather different. Modern distilleries have more in common with pharma plants than the sort of thatched-cottage scenes on their labels. Distillers are – and always have been – scientists. But it is in the collision between the quantifiable perfection of science and the beautiful chaos of human nature that some of the most interesting interactions take place, as Quinn points out.

“For example, somebody is doing a sensory evaluation trying to use normal everyday words to describe the flavour that they are seeing or feeling, to try and take that –  say somebody saying I get a nice hint of floral note, a bit of rose petal and a bit of leather, and cigar tobacco in the background – there is no way that you could say well that is due to ABCD or E, as different people will have different terminology and different language to describe what they perceive as flavour.

“So one of the things we do in our sensory science lab is to try and standardise the language a little bit so that if somebody does say leather or cereal notes or whatever, we try and ensure that everyone uses the same language to describe that particular attribute in the whiskey. And then we might try and see if we can determine what is causing or what is contributing to that.”

But while the pilot plant and sensory science lab may be akin to the Large Hadron Collider, there is no one illusive God Particle that can create a particular flavour.

“Invariably it is not just a single congener – it could be the effect of multiple congeners coming together to give you a single sensory effect. You have some compounds that on their own … – you find a single compound and put it into neutral alcohol and increase its concentration so you get to a point where you could actually perceive it as an aroma , and then if you go below that minimum level and you don’t get it then that is deemed the flavour threshold – in other words, you have some compounds that have very high flavour threshold, in other words you need a lot of them for you to perceive it.

“But then some are very low flavour thresholds, levels that you can barely measure, but you can still pick it up on the nose. And it is those compounds that are the key ones in terms of bridging that gap between identifying the sensory act of compounds and identifying them and relating them to a particular character.

“What can happen is that you can get small individual compounds that might be below the flavour threshold; in other words, theoretically you should not be able to pick them up. But there’s a few of them that are sometimes present together that can almost act synergistically so that individually you wouldn’t be able to detect them but when they are combined together they give you a flavour and perception. And then you are getting into an area that can be very difficult to fully explore.”

That ‘area’ is us. Our perceptions are based on a combination of nature – the senses we are born with – and nurture – the tastes we develop as we grow, which are impacted on by the culture and environment around us.

“Different people will have different preferences, different likes, even different sensitivities to flavors so there will  be some elements of flavour that some people will pick up readily and other people cannot perceive them at all.”

Quinn’s work with Irish Distillers is less about stripping the soul from whiskey than it is about understanding how to make the best whiskey possible. It may seem like a eugenics programme, where error and, thus, personality, are eliminated under the jackbooted march of lab technicians in white coats, ruthlessly striving for a dystopian purity. In reality, it is what science always aims to be – about doing better.

“We are trying to understand distilling at a molecular level. The key is – the more you can understand, the more you can make informed decisions about what influences the taste or the character of whiskey. But it is also about what aspects don’t affect it. If you don’t have some level of understanding then you can’t really go and do the same distillation with confidence. You can only do this if you have a good understanding of the technical, science element of what you’re doing, because if you’re just relying on old wives tales and superstitions about not changing anything in the distillery, then you will never be able to develop something unique and interesting.”

Quinn knows a thing or two about doing unique things, given that, along with Peter Morehead, he was one of the chief drivers of the runaway success that is Jameson Caskmates, inspired by a spirit of innovation, experimentation and adventure.

But while the Method & Madness brand has the space for more mad-scientist style experimentation with wood and distillate styles, in both the main distillery and micro distillery, part of Quinn’s work is to ensure that as the Irish whiskey category explodes worldwide, a consistent standard is maintained, not just of quality but also of flavour profile. Distillers used to be full of superstition, where any change to the process – even the cleaning of cobwebs in the stillhouse – was deemed to be bad luck in case it affected the spirit, a culture of what a scientist might refer to as ‘poppycock’.

“You can keep doing the same thing over and over again but if you have a better understanding of what the fundamentals are then you have a much better opportunity of directing your research and your experiments in a path you know will change the spirits, and you can say ‘let’s try it’ and know more or less what the outcome is going to be. You go from a chancing-your-arm, needle-in-a-haystack approach to having a far more focussed approach.”

The distillery in Midleton is one of the most impressive, modern facilities in the world, and it has shown that you can be the biggest and also be the best. While the public facing side may be one of heritage and tradition, scientists like Dave Quinn, Dagmara Dabrowska and the rest of the Masters and their apprentices have shown that they are getting ever closer to unlocking the secrets of a perfect dram and entering a brave new world of truly great whiskeys.

  • Footnote: There is an excellent interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation in the Engineering Journal, which you can read here. It goes into some depth on the energy saving programme. There is also a recent presentation by Dr Dabrowska which you can read here, which goes into her work on the column stills. 

Distilling in the name of….

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

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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.

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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.

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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.