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:
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:
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.
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.
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?
When I tell people how much I spend on whiskey, they are horrified. You mean you can spend upwards of sixty euro on a bottle? they gasp. It usually leads to more questions – what is the most you would spend on a bottle, how much do you earn, what makes it so expensive? All great questions that I’m happy to answer – the most I would spend is about 120 euro; I earn somewhere around the 50k mark each year, and as for what makes good whiskey expensive, that is a heady brew of real-world elements – age, rarity, source – and more ephemeral ones – legacy, branding, prestige – all of which combine to create that most elusive of things; aura.
Super-premium is not a mode of production. It is a price category, and perhaps more importantly, it is a demographic, one which Irish whiskey has only just started to explore. Midleton Pearl was an early foray into the field in 2014, with a six grand price tag – a figure that seems modest when you consider what was coming next.
A price tag like this may seem offensive to us mere mortals, but if you earn half a million a year and want to invest, or if you earn millions and want a treat, the price tag is not that outlandish. Yes, it’s obscene, but that’s capitalism, baby – my purchase of a Redbreast 21 for 180 would be seen by many as completely over the top, so it’s all a question of perspective.
As for the 35k tag, it doesn’t even come close to what the exclusive releases from the Macallan command; nor does it even qualify for this list of the top ten most expensive whiskies. The Scots have been doing super-premium for years, and doing it well – so why not us? And if Midleton are doing it, why not Bushmills?
And so to the liquid itself; John Wilson of the Irish Times has a review of it. It’s a nice bottle, a nice box, and I’ve no doubt it is a nice liquid. Not that this matters, because all anyone needs to know about this is the price. That is the defining factor.
The series opens with a peated single malt from old Midleton. It is worth remembering that there are other bottles of old Midleton out there which you can grab at auction for less than a grand, albeit none of it malt and none of it peated. In fact, this is the first official single malt from old or new Midleton (the Method & Madness one is distilled at Bushmills), and a peated one at that. So it is something of a unicorn. I have no doubt it will sell, because, as McGuane pointed out, we need this offering.
But back to MVRSDCO, and the salient points:
Six releases. The first is a 45-year-old Irish single malt. There will be one release annually until the year 2025, ranging in age from 45 to 50 years old, all from Old Midleton Distillery (1825-1975).
The last release will coincide with Old Midleton Distillery’s 200th birthday, while Chapter One will be the first official release from Old Midleton in 16 years.
Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Collection Chapter One is the only release in this collection that is a peated single malt – it has been in a third-fill sherry cask cask for 45 years.
RRP: €35,000 £32,000 $40,000; ABV 51.2%; 48 750ml bottles in Ireland, UK, France and US; two bottles will be sold via ballot system on The 1825 Room, the Midleton Very Rare online members’ programme. Whiskey lovers can register their interest to be entered into a lottery to purchase a bottle from 9pm on 18th February for one week.
You can say that the price is obscene. Many would say the money we, as whiskey lovers, regularly spend on a bottle is obscene. There are people out there who are immensely wealthy, and they want a drink that reflects their status. Super-premium has little to do with how it is made and much to do with how it is sold, and who it is sold to – and in this case, it’s not you, not me, and most likely not anyone we know.
So, in summary – capitalism is bad, whiskey is good, and time is the only commodity of any value.
Carol Quinn is incredibly pragmatic – a couple of years ago during a chat about the lost distilleries of Cork, I lamented that they were knocked to make way for roads and duplexes and various other developments. Carol – IDL’s archivist – pointed out that unless buildings are being used, they no longer serve a purpose. I feel the same way about brands – which awkwardly brings me to the latest Powers rebrand. It seems like only a short while ago that Powers was reborn with a new, more modern label (it’s a little over four years) and here we are again with another, considerably less subtle makeover. I’m going to let the press release do some of the explaining here:
Powers Irish Whiskey, which is made by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has unveiled a bold new bottle design for its range of premium Irish whiskeys. Debuting on core expression Powers Gold Label in the USA from March 2020, the dynamic new look is set to attract a new generation of drinkers to one of Ireland’s most loved whiskey brands.
The design features a new bottle shape which has been inspired by the distinctive pot still silhouette from the brand’s historical home at John’s Lane Distillery. Another striking aspect of the new design is the label which is styled on the iconic Powers ‘diamond P’ – one of the first ever trademarks registered in Ireland and a link to the legacy of Powers and Irish whiskey history all over Ireland. Each whiskey in the Powers range is presented with a label in a different colour to bring to life its unique story; Powers Gold Label in red, an homage to the original red Powers diamond marque; Powers Three Swallow in blue, a nod to the feathers of the graceful bird; and Powers John’s Lane Release in metallic ink, to reflect the industrial innovation that the Powers family demonstrated at the original distillery established in 1791 on John’s Lane, Dublin.
Carol Quinn, Archivist at Irish Distillers explains, “Powers sense of identity has always focused on the diamond P; that became very clear to me as I worked my way through the historical archive. The diamond P was everywhere; on the casks, stationary, on bills and receipts, emblazoned on everything that left the distillery, and notably on the wonderful Powers mirrors that still hang in Ireland’s pubs today. Workers at the old John’s Lane distillery even took to wearing a diamond P pin on their lapel, such was their pride to be part of the Powers family. For me it’s wonderful to see the diamond P front and centre on this new label, symbolising all the history of this great whiskey since 1791.”
Following the launch of the new-look Powers Gold Label in March 2020, the new design will be introduced across Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane from mid-2020 in the USA and the rest of the world from late-2020. In Ireland, Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane will be released in March 2020, with Powers Gold Label to be reviewed in due course.
Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers commented: “Powers has been famous for its bold taste profile and character since the family distillery was established in 1791. We are excited to introduce this new look to the world and inspire a new generation with the unique history and personality of Powers. At Irish Distillers, we have pride in Powers as one of the world’s leading Irish whiskeys and we welcome this dynamic new chapter for the brand as we seek to continue the Irish whiskey renaissance around the world.”
New packaging for Powers Irish Whiskey underpins recent innovation for the brand as it seeks to reach and inspire whiskey drinkers including; the release of Powers Old Fashioned, the brand’s first ever pre-mixed classic cocktail; and the Powers Quarter; a collaboration between six Dublin bars to tell the story of Powers and its illustrious Dublin history.
IDL are looking for the next Jameson. They sold Paddy to Sazerac so that’s out, Redbreast and the Spots are too premium, and thus it falls to Powers. Powers has a more robust profile, far moreso than Jameson, which many of us here in the rebel county would describe as mockya. A bold liquid deserves a bold look. That said, I hope they keep the single casks in their current format – there are many collectors out there who will be hoping the same thing.
The new bottle is akin to the beautiful Chinnery Gin, while the labels are modern and fresh. The Gold Label may no longer have a gold label, and the John’s Lane release may look a little downgraded by its update, but overall, if this keeps Powers alive for another few decades, then it shall be worth it. All the heritage in the world is meaningless if clinging to it condemns a brand to death.
What is single pot still whiskey? Is it the past, is it the future? Is it a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, an Irish Irish whiskey, a category within the category? Is it our secret weapon, or is it a marketing trick? Is it a common style, found around the world, a simple mixed mash spirit, a dumbed down single malt? It is a bastard malt, a mongrel? Is it a testament to Irish ingenuity and a spirit born of oppression – is it a flower that grew from ruins? Is it all these things or none, and, most importantly, is it the next step?
When I think single malt, I think of Scotland. There are many exceptional single malts from around the world, and many mediocre ones from Scotland, but it is still there – a century of marketing has linked the concept of the single malt to one nation above all others. But once upon a time they used a mixed mash too. As single pot obsessive Willie Murphy noted, there is this quote the second edition of Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing:
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tax on ale, beer and whiskey (which was still referred to as aqua vitae in all statutes of the period) was essentially doubled, and it was estimated that this provision would yield £384 000 in revenue (Statute 1661, Car II, c.128). To raise this huge sum there must have been several large legitimate stills in existence, such as those of John Haig & Co., who claim that a Robert Haig established their business in 1627 (Anon., 1914). What is interesting, from a technical viewpoint, is the fact that these taxes were imposed not only on malted barley but also on spirit ‘not made of malt’. Other chronicles of this period similarly allude to spirit being made from a mixture of grains, such as oats, barley and wheat (Smith, 1776) as well as malt. So even from the earliest times some whiskey was being distilled from unmalted grain, and not all malt was made from barley. The malt tax introduced in 1701, for example, states that duty shall be paid: ‘upon all Malt, ground or unground, whether the same shall be made of Barley, or any other Corn or Grain whatsoever’ (Statute 1701, 12 &13 William III, c.5).
That Smith they are referencing is none other than the father of capitalism Adam Smith, him of ‘greed is good’/Gordon Gekko fame. In the brutal tome more commonly known as The Wealth Of Nations, Smith notes:
Malt is consumed not only in the brewery of beer and ale, but in the manufacture of wines and spirits. If the malt tax were to be raised to eighteen shillings upon the quarter, it might be necessary to make some abatement in the different excises which are imposed upon those particular sorts of low wines and spirits of which malt makes any part of the materials. In what are called malt spirits it makes commonly but a third part of the materials, the other two- thirds being either raw barley, or one-third barley and one-third wheat.
Smith wrote that back in 1776, and then there’s this from super sleuth Charlie Roche:
So before single malt knew what it was, it was a mixed mash whisky not unlike our own supposedly uniquely Irish style.
Single pot still can never compete with single malt, but it can become something else. There are obviously obstacles, because it’s not just a complex whiskey, it is also a complicated one. Referring to it as a mixed mash whiskey is actually a welcome simplification – single pot still is a confusing name, as it reflects not the style, nor the key element of the mashbill, but rather the device used to distill it. Also, as they are not allowed to call it ‘pure pot still’ anymore, it now sounds like it is only distilled once, or made using only one still. For consumers approaching the SPS category for the first time, there is a lot of baggage to get your head around. Then there is the requisite explanations of the corn laws, because every whiskey should come with a history lesson that focuses on taxation of grain. But SPS has genuine heritage, and this is where it gets even more complicated.
Peter Mulryan knows a thing or two about whiskey. He went from writing books on the subject to being the public face of Irish Distillers Ltd SPS promos and is now the driving force behind Blackwater Distillery. Mulryan has blogged about his dissatisfaction with the technical file – the document that controls what Irish whiskey is and how it is made – and has started making pot still whiskey from old mashbills, as the more recent rules mean that SPS is what IDL say it is. Mulryan notes that in all the old historical SPS mashbills he has come across, not one meets the standards set out by the technical file.
Published five years ago, the technical file was written by the large whiskey producers in Ireland at a time when a boom was looming and the finer points of the category needed to be locked down. The result is a document defining SPS to suit IDL’s in-house style – imagine if Diageo legally declared that Guinness is the only style of stout allowed by law, which, quite frankly, sounds like exactly the kind of thing Diageo would do.
You can read the file itself here, or David Havelin’s excellent dissection of it here and here, but IDL’s influence is all over it, including references to SPS being made ‘usually in large stills’ and even allowing for a little bit of column still distillation in there, which is clearly a gob in the face of history. But SPS as a style was resuscitated and kept alive by IDL, so little wonder that they felt such a sense of ownership over it that they simply went ahead and redefined it.
And just so I can play devil’s advocaat, I would make this point – it has been five or six years since the big producers sat down to write the tech file, and a lot has changed. Grain has become a major talking point, with words like provenance and terroir becoming part of the global discussion, so one more question before I launch into an actual whiskey review – is it not possible that IDL themselves would change the technical file definition of SPS, given how restrictive it is? Are their hands not tied by the file, now that they have a micro-distillery where they can compete with the likes of Blackwater? Would they not wish to loosen the ball-gag on SPS and let it breathe a little? Is there not an archive filled with old mashbills in Midleton, recipes for pot still whiskeys of yore that could be resurrected and released in tiny batches, little pieces of history brought alive and offered to the world as part of a celebration of our heritage? Perhaps, perhaps not. But until they do, we have Midleton’s interpretation of SPS, ahistorical as it may be, and hey, it isn’t all that bad.
At a Redbreast masterclass at Whiskey Live Dublin in 2017, attendees were given a gift – a sample of Redbreast 21-year-old bottled at cask strength. I, being both antisocial and impoverished, was not in attendance, but John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan was there, and through a circuitous route that involved Omar ‘That’s Dram Good’ Fitzell smuggling the sample up from Kerry, I managed to get my paws on a generous portion of this fabled whiskey (a 100ml sample of it sold at auction for more than a hundred euro earlier this year).
And so to some notes on this rarest of birds:
Nose: Hello again, chocolate, tobacco, leather, raisins, and for SPS Redbreast bingo, Christmas cake in a glass, complete with marzipan and brandy butter. Pear drops and camphor, roasted banana, flambé crepe with Nutella. It’s cask strength, but you genuinely wouldn’t know it – this is about flavour, not strength.
Palate: Really reminiscent of the Dreamcask, so much so that it should really become an annual, relatively affordable release – flog 300 of these for 250 a pop one day a year, g’wan. Up front there is more fruit, those JR ice-lollies from the Eighties, rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding; it is dark, rich, deep, like meself. There is a lot of toffee, fudge, dark chocolate, hot chocolate with a drop of Baileys in it.
Finish: That zesty snap of the SPS spice fades slowly, and again a lot of notes reminiscent of the Dreamcask, that bergamot, the sweetness, the leather and tobacco wafting. A beautiful whiskey, and one that deserves to be shared with the world (stocks permitting). Is it automatically better than the standard 21? Not really. It’s great, but to me that 21 is the gold standard for Irish whiskey, SPS or SM or SG or blend or vatted malt or anything. It is accessible, widely available and an absolute beauty. That said, the 21CS could easily be the match of the Dreamcask, especially if it was released at a reasonable price and in a fashion that didn’t become a flipping free-for-all.
Aside from all my grumbling about the technical file, and the fact that it could do with some significant edits, if there is a way to open hearts and minds to our unnecessarily complicated indigenous style, then Redbreast is it. Forget the youthful SPS of Dingle, Teeling and impending ones from Great Northern, or even the multiplicity of well-aged Powers single casks, ain’t nobody got time for that. To hell with the Spot family, beautiful as they may be, because they are an even more confusing pitch than Redbreast. The smart money is on the priest’s whiskey. Redbreast was my epiphany, and look at me now, friendless and alone, writing sprawling thinkpieces on a minor category of whiskey. So here’s to our grains of future past, and to single pot still whiskey, whatever it once was, and whatever it may become.
Conor McGregor has great taste in Irish whiskey – he was often seen sipping some excellent whiskeys after big bouts – so when he announced he was bringing a whiskey out, I had great expectations. Would he go for super premium, would he opt for a more approachable ten year old single malt, or even a pot still release? No, he would not. He opted for a blend, with grain from Midleton (update: Not Midleton but GND, apparently) and malt from Bushmills, the latter being a distillery which seemed to mistakenly believe he owned.
I haven’t tried Proper No. 12 – a name he was forced to settle for after his attempt at trademarking Notorious was shot down – and while there are obviously those who would knock McGregor’s drink for the sake of it, it does appear that his pricing on this release – 35 euro – is a little over the top. Still, I wouldn’t hold that against him – Irish whiskey has long had delusions about pricing, and as a result has a long way to go before it offers the value for money that Scotch does.
There is one thing that McGregor’s Proper No. 12 will do for Irish whiskey: Increase category awareness. With his tens of millions of fans, he can bring more people into the fold. We all start out on blends, and Proper No. 12 will be a gateway for a small percentage of those who try it and are curious to know more. Obviously a lot of people will drink it because they love him, and never go beyond it, as the liquid doesn’t really matter to them, because this is about his brand. And herein lies my problem with this product.
Even the slightest scrutiny of McGregor’s rhetoric in recent years should set alarm bells ringing. You can call it banter, or patter, or whatever you want, but the racism, bigotry and Islamophobic dog whistling he has engaged in is an obscenity. I admire his swagger, and his skill, but watching Khabib Nurmagomedov choke him out was incredibly satisfying after all the insults McGregor threw at him about both his faith and his family. This aspect of MMA – the war of words leading up to big bouts – makes it look less like a sport and more like a back alley bar fight. Compare the dignity and grace of Katie Taylor with McGregor’s ‘dance for me boy’ comments to Mayweather and then tell me Ireland should be proud of him. Still, as ambassadors for Irish whiskey go, McGregor is probably less tainted than John McAfee.
McGregor’s release was the whiskey headline of the year, and the release of Red Spot was a staid affair in comparison, even if it excited the nerds. Red Spot, along with Green and Yellow, are throwbacks to the old tradition of bonding. I’m not going to digress into a history lesson, because in this case it is largely irrelevant, but here is some musty press release for you to blow the dust off:
The Mitchell family commenced trading in 1805 at 10 Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin as purveyors of fine wine and confectionery. In 1887, the business expanded into whiskey bonding whereby it sent empty wine and fortified wine casks to the local Jameson Distillery on Bow Street to be filled with new single pot still spirit for maturation in the Mitchell’s cellars.
The Red Spot name was derived from the Mitchell’s practice of marking their maturing casks of whiskey with a daub of coloured paint to determine the age potential of the whiskey; with a Blue Spot, Green Spot, Yellow Spot or Red Spot indicating 7, 10, 12 or 15 years respectively. Four generations later, the company is still in the wine and spirits business under the stewardship of Jonathan Mitchell and his son Robert.
Red is a triple-distilled, single pot still Irish whiskey that has been matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of casks pre-seasoned with Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and Marsala fortified wine. I bought a bottle for Christmas and liked it – very sweet, rich and smooth, like meself.
The problem now for the Spot family is where Blue will sit. It is meant to be a seven-year-old, while Green was meant to be a ten year old. In some super-duper premium releases, Green is a ten, but in its most common iteration it is NAS, and priced at the 50-60 mark. Yellow is a 12 and is 70-80. So where do you place a seven year old? It has to be cheaper than Yellow, so let’s say 60. What then for Green, which as a NAS is presumably aged four to seven years? To me, the easiest way round this is to do Blue as a cask-strength and place it at the 70-80 mark. Obviously I’m no consumer expert, but it will be interesting to see how Blue finds its place. The Spot family needs it though, as it currently looks like three freshers off to a traffic light ball, adorned with yellow, red and green badges, bootcut jeans, Rockports and Ben Sherman shirts. Or maybe Blue Spot will just look like a paramedic showing up at 3am to stop them from choking on their own tongues.
It was a big year for Irish Distillers Limited – they bought a brewery to secure casks for Caskmates, and also supposedly sorta kinda announced they were building a distillery that would be seperate from their current base in Midleton. Beyond that they continued to release single casks in connection with various whiskey pubs, with a barrage of Powers and Redbreast releases keeping the collectors running around the country like the cast of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and keeping a lot of whiskey pubs loyal to the throne.
Then there is the alleged upcoming IDL release of a gin, and here comes some wild conjecture: I think it could be released under the Method and Madness label. The M&M brand, with its links to the experimentation in the microdistillery, is ideal for a gin (the gin still is also housed within the micro). M&M makes sense for this – they are coming into a crowded market and they need to go small and experimental, ie, the exact opposite of their jaded Cork Dry Gin, AKA ‘the gin your racist aunt drinks’. Gin is a wild scene and if this release from Midleton doesn’t take hold, the M&M brand allows them to quietly shelve it as an experiment that erred on the side of madness. Again, all conjecture on my part.
Outside of the industry, Ireland has a raft of new whiskey voices. It’s fantastic to see bloggers, YouTubers, Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles popping up and enjoying that general buzz of a scene that is exploding. It’s an exciting time to be a whiskey lover, and I would urge anyone out there with a passion for our native spirit to start blogging, tweeting or just larking about on the internet, as we always need more voices. And besides, there’s always the off chance you might get the odd freebie or ten.
In May I was invited over to the Spirit of Speyside festival. It is an incredible event and I recommend it to anyone interested in whiskey tourism and how to do it right – the new tasting room in Strathisla was a great education in how you make whiskey tasting fun and interested for those who don’t care all that much about whiskey. It can’t just be a science lesson and a look at some stills – you need to give people an experience they will remember. Let the nerds into the warehouse with the master distiller, but the buses of tourists need more than a wander around a stillhouse and a talk on yeast.
Obviously, this was my second time being brought over for the Spirit Of Speyside. I was there in 2015 too, and was invited largely because of all the nice things I had written for the Irish Examiner about Midleton Distillery. The festival sponsors in 2015 were Chivas, or, to give them their full title, Chivas Brothers Pernod Ricard. My invite this year also came from Chivas, and I stayed in a Chivas house next to Strathisla. Look, I am basically a giant whiskey whore and we all just need to make our peace with that fact, I have no scruples and I am in the pocket of Big Whiskey, I’m changing my name to Bill Linnane Pernod Ricard, or Jean Luc Ricard, yada yada yada.
I had assumed that as my French friends were so generous during the year, that I wouldn’t be getting a Christmas bottle. I saw other bloggers and whiskey commentators getting Redbreast 15s and Green Spots, and thought, good for them, as I hummed All The Young Dudes to myself. Then a package arrived, and I gave my wife quite the jolt when I shouted FUCK ME as I opened it and realised what it was. It was, in fact, this:
Irish Distillers has unveiled the next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition.
In collaboration with expert forestry consultant, Paddy Purser, the Irish Distillers team of Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation, and Billy Leighton, Head Blender, chose Bluebell Forest on Castle Blunden Estate to provide the oak for the second edition in the Midleton Dair Ghaelach series. Each bottle can be traced back to one of six individual 130-year-old oak trees that were carefully felled in the Bluebell Forest in May of 2013.
Bluebell Forest is found among the historic stone walls of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Since the 1600s, generations of the Blunden Family have watched over a stand of Irish oak trees with a carpet of luminescent bluebells covering the forest floor.
To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves, which were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez. After drying for 15 months, the staves were worked into 29 Irish oak Hogshead casks and given a light toast.
The whiskey, made up of a selection of Midleton’s classic rich and spicy pot still distillates matured for between 12 and 23 years in American oak barrels, was then filled into the Irish oak Hogshead casks and diligently nosed and tasted each month by Leighton and O’Gorman. After a year and a half, the pair judged that the whiskey had reached the perfect balance between the spicy single pot still Irish whiskey and Irish oak characteristics.
Bottled at cask strength, between 55.30% to 56.30% ABV, and without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest is available from November 2017 in markets, including the US, Canada, Ireland, France and the UK at the recommended selling price of $280 per 70cl.
When this first hit the market I cheerfully remarked that whilst celebrating the great houses (and cashing in on their equally great history) is nice, it’s also worth remembering that they were built on the bones of a million Irish dead. It was a thought that came back to me at Powerscourt as I stood in the estate’s pet cemetery – there are headstones there from 1916, meaning that while the aristocrats were holding funerals for their dogs, Irish people were being lined up and shot because they wanted their freedom. A terrible beauty indeed.
But enough of my inept historical punditry – to some equally inept tasting notes!
On the nose, sweet red pepper, roasted tomato, the leather/tobacco/spice trifecta in full effect. I’m not sure where this is going – it’s part savoury, part spun sugar, with that curious wood element in the background. Chinese five spice, roasted banana, Black Forest Gateau, shortbread biscuit, melted Twix, and a fair amount of WTFery. It’s not as immediate as the Redbreast 21, but then, what is?
On the palate, Euthymol toothpaste, fruit pastilles, Skittles, a lot of really bright flavours, and a lot less of those deep, dark ones of RB21. It is smooth, and elegant, but it just lacks that Krakatoa boom you want from something that costs 300. It’s a very well made whiskey, with great balance, but it’s no Dreamcask. However, it’s the element of experimentation with native wood that makes this remarkable – the ability to make a uniquely Irish whiskey that little bit more Irish.
Of course, I’m not just a corporate mouthpiece for Big Whiskey, I’m also a corporate mouthpiece for medium-sized, grassroots, bootstrap whiskey, in this case embodied by West Cork Distillers. I had eyed them with an air of Cold War paranoia over the last couple of years, seeing them as secretive and touchy. What the hell are they building in there, I growled to myself. Then a chance meeting with John O’Connell changed that, and he threw open the doors in Skibb to me, a trip that became this sprawling piece on FFT.ie. John is one of the most honest, straight shooting people in Irish whiskey, and is quietly doing great things down there. One example of this is his spirit of experimentation, such as their reverse engineering of peated whiskey.
Peated malt is hard to come by in Ireland – legend has it that one maltster did a peated batch but didn’t clean the pipes properly afterwards, with the end result that a batch of very lightly peat-tainted malted barley went to a very large and notoriously black-hearted brewer. Cue said brewer issuing a notice to all malting houses in Ireland that there was to be no more peating or they would no longer do business with them, thus ending peated Irish malt. Allegedly.
Peat is an undiscovered country here – we have a few peated whiskeys, but as far as I know they were all peated in Scotland, using Scottish peat, and – most likely – Scottish grain. As always, I’m open to correction here, so feel free to jump in and school me.
John O’Connell comes from a background in food science, and experimentation is in his genes, so to create a peated Irish whiskey, he simply infused casks with Irish peat by charring them with a peat fire. Taking single malt aged in sherry butts, he then finished the whiskey in the peat charred cask for another six months, resulting in this release. It’s a single cask, released at cask strength. But what I love about WCD is their sense of fairness – all of their releases are incredibly reasonably priced, which may be part of the reason they don’t often get the respect they deserve.
Whiskey is a snobbish scene – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – and a value dram from WCD might get overlooked in favour of a pricier bottle. This peat cask release has a surprisingly clean nose despite the strength – not a huge amount from the peat, but a lot from the sherry – red fruits, black cherry, oatcake, maybe a little red onion jam. Nail polish, but in a good way. On the palate the strength makes itself known immediately. The peat here is minimal – I could see this being used as an intro to peated whiskeys for those who might not be ready to have their face fucked by Laphroaig. This liquid has a lot of sizzle, making way for oily, slightly smokey flavours – hickory smoked bacon, BBQ sauce and caramelised sugar. A short finish, and a fine dram for a good price. I even like the wine-bottle aesthetic they opted for.
This whiskey is a brave experiment for a small distillery and I think it’s worth a punt. Obviously, there are those who would disagree, but I love that WCD took a risk. The Irish are nothing if not inventive, and I welcome a bit of experimentation – it doesn’t matter if that is with strange casks, biodynamic barley, strange grains, local peat, or even pellets of African mahogany. The Dair Ghaelach and the WCD come from opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a super-premium release from a massive distillery with money to burn; the other is a bargain dram from a distillery that has a still which was made from a hotel boiler. But what unites them is a willingness to experiment and try new things, and for that they are both to be commended.
And so to 2019. How many more distilleries are going to make it over the line? Maybe it is just my pessimistic nature, but to me it seems like we might be hitting peak distilling. Clon are on stream, Boann are there too, Glendalough are working away at getting their whiskey distilling operation up and running, Tipp are opening in 2019 in Dundrum House. I find myself looking at the IWA distillery map from a couple of years ago and marvelling that so many have actually made it. Granted, some on the map won’t make it, but overall it is a pretty impressive feat that we went from fuck-all distilleries to this many in a short period of time. There will be teething problems, but any concerns I ever had about the integrity of our messaging has nothing on the absolute mess that is Japanese whisky.
That said, if I was an American with roots in north Cork and I bought a bottle of Kilbrin Irish whiskey, produced by the Kilbrin Distilling Company, I would expect the liquid within to have some link to Kilbrin, especially as they say it is from the parish of Kilbrin.
Spoiler alert: Kilbrin whiskey has nothing to do with Kilbrin, apart from being ‘inspired’ by a mythical treasure buried in Kilbrin. It’s okay though, as this was a rookie error by a small firm with no background in whiskey, actually hang on I’m just checking my notes here and it would appear that the firm behind Kilbrin Whiskey is actually a subsidiary of Scots whisky giant (and owner of Tullamore DEW) Wm Grant & Sons. Well now I don’t know what to think.
The problem here isn’t really transparency per se – I genuinely don’t care where this whiskey comes from (chances are it is from Bushmills). I do start to care if I feel that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of American consumers, as there is also the contagion effect of mistrust. I don’t buy Japanese whisky anymore as I don’t want to have to turn into Hercule Poirot just to find out if the liquid was actually created in Japan, and if a couple of poorly-thought out brands burn the American consumer then we are doomed.
Yes, all Irish whiskey is Irish, so we are nowhere near the Japanese situation. But surely if place is being used as a selling point then we should consider that down the road people might want to visit that place to see where the whiskey came from? Why not just speak straight, like the fantastically blunt explanation of Blacks Whiskey and where it originated. Besides, if you are going after the average American consumer, surely people rather than places are both safer and more engaging – how many myths and legends do we have that could be exploited for a brand story? Feckin’ loads of them, all we have is batshit crazy stories about giants and mad yokes fighting huge dogs, stick them on the bottle rather than poor auld Kilbrin, a place I wouldn’t want any American wandering around in the hopes of finding a distillery. I’m not even sure they have a post office.
The good news is that even if we burn our bridges with America, at least we will have China to plunder, as Bord Bia have commissioned a report on attitudes to Irish whiskey there, and are looking for the findings in ‘a visually appealing, high-definition conference PowerPoint presentation which highlights the core insights and offers recommendations for the industry’. Wow – Powerpoint, I’d better hit pause on my Hootie and the Blowfish mp3 on my Zune, log off my dial up internet and use my landline to call 1996 because if you need to specifically ask people to use Powerpoint, you are setting a low bar. It just reminds me of the laughable LOI rebrand.
Irish whiskey bonder Louise McGuane, who has vast experience in both the US and Asia with various drinks brands, summed up what the report should say in a single tweet:
Now if only I could find a way to screenshot that tweet into a Powerpoint slide and maybe get it to spin into frame, then I could be raking in some sweet, sweet tax dollars from Bord Bia.
It wasn’t all good news for Irish whiskey this year – Brexit still poses massive uncertainty for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning whiskey scene, while I’m personally holding Brexit to account for Master Of Malt no longer shipping to Ireland. Apparently, it was always illegal for whiskey to be shipped unaccompanied into Ireland, but nobody seemed to give a damn when I brought in a few grands’ worth over the last four years. Now, with Brexit looming, there would appear to have been a clampdown. Thus, I have nowhere to go for my cheap deals – even the whiskey from my hometown was often cheaper on MoM than it is right here where it is made. If any whiskey fan out there has a solution to this mess, please HMU in the comments.
This sprawling disaster of a blog post is only an incredibly brief sliver of rumour and innuendo, and in no way representative of just how alive Irish whiskey is right now. If I could chuck in my job and spend six months doing a Barnard and visiting every distillery in Ireland, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t, so sadly you get this armchair punditry instead, in which I have managed to not mention about 90% of the big events from the year – Teeling pot still, Kilbeggan Rye, Dingle maturing like a fine wine, and the pagan science going on down in Waterford, which is part Wicker Man, part Gattaca. So here’s to 2019, 2020, 2021, and all the great whiskeys to come. As the old song goes, things can only get better.
Between 1924 and 1932, a series of studies were carried out in Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory outside Chicago. The aim was to test if workers were more productive in brighter or dimmer lighting. Over the course of the study, a pattern emerged. When the lights were raised, the workers were more productive than they were previously. The lights dimmed, and the workers were also more productive than they were previously. In fact, the only time the work rate slumped back to its average was when the workers were not being studied. Soon it became apparent that the light levels had little to do with the results, and what was motivating the workers was the fact that they were the subjects of a study. This became known as The Hawthorne Effect, or the observer effect – whereby the act of study changes elements of what is being studied.
I find it hard to understand how the more productive bloggers manage to rattle out reviews at the pace they do, or how they maintain their enthusiasm. Images of bloggers’ sample hordes just make me sad – dozens or hundreds of miniature bottles just sitting there undrunk, because once your blog starts getting traffic, you will never keep up with the influx. Obviously, I am mercifully unburdened of traffic, so mine is an open road, bar the odd sample from the neighbours at IDL, such as this:
There are two schools of thought on tasting notes – one, you taste a whiskey, and then you tell people what it tasted like in the plainest possible terms. Or two, you use the opportunity to get creative. I quite like the latter – I love the SMSW tasting notes as they are generally batshit – wild, freewheeling notes that pull you into times and places you will never be, sensations you will never have. I love the more esoteric notes, which go beyond simple descriptives and instead operate more like poetry, giving you an oblong view of the whiskey, a code to be broken, a riddle to be solved. Because while I would always say in public that, hey, it’s just a drink, in my head I always know that it’s more.
A whiskey is about time, place and memory – it’s great if you think it tastes like custard, but I’d be more engaged if you told me it reminds you of the desserts of stewed apple and rubbery custard your nan gave you, because it evokes memories unique to you. It’s that little reveal that I like, clearly because I am a nosey shit, but also because, while there may be some objective tasting notes that the majority of people could agree on, it’s the uniqueness of an individual’s notes that are most interesting. So fuck objectivity.
Blair Bowman was a student at Aberdeen University when he happened to be in Barcelona for World Gin Day. As a whisky lover – Bowman was the founder of the Aberdeen University Malt Whisky Society – he decided to find out when World Whisky Day was. There wasn’t one, so he decided there should be. Fast forward three years and Bowman sells the World Whisky Day concept for an alleged six-figure sum. He is still involved, and it goes from strength to strength, with Irish whiskey makers getting over the spelling of it to join in the (promotional) fun.
To mark World Whisky Day 2018, IDL released a 32 year old Redbreast in a 50cl, €500 bottling. All 816 bottles sold out in hours. It seemed fast – even though there 2,000 of the Mano A Lamh bottles back in 2015, the customer quotas of two per buyer meant that despite being an incredibly reasonable €65, it didn’t sell out for weeks. But Mano wasn’t that old, nor exclusive, nor did it come at a time when the Irish economy is picking up almost at the same speed as the global interest in Irish whiskey. But still – the Dream Cask sold out in hours. It wasn’t long before it became clear why.
Whiskey is many things – delightful beverage, social lubricant, chrism of the soul – but it also happens to be a relatively solid investment. The Dream Cask was an old whiskey, with an age statement, in a uniquely Irish style (single pot still), that was limited to less than 1,000 bottles. The flippers – those who buy bottles purely to sell again at a profit – were always going to swarm around an item like this. However, what must have sent them into a feeding frenzy was the realisation that, thanks to a glitch in the IDL website, customer quotas were not applied. The results were spectacular:
I got sent this earlier. 17 bottles of Redbreast Dream Cask. All perfect condition. The owner hopes to get €20000 for them. pic.twitter.com/UB6lBpcWgJ
Now, this isn’t to suggest that all 800 bottles were sold in lots of 17 to flippers; after all, how many people would have had eight and a half grand laying about? But if you were one of those who had €500 or a grand to buy one or two, and discovered they sold out, partly thanks to some folks buying dozens, then you would be pretty unamused. Also, while harcore whiskey nerds might do bottle shares or sell you one for cost, the flippers are simply going to flip. And, as John Egan pointed out, having so many bottles in the hands of the flippers skews the value – they will be in it for a decent price, not to simply hook another whiskey pal up. They are like ticket touts, forcing the ordinary fan to fork out above normal prices for access to an exclusive event – the tasting of a very old Redbreast whiskey.
So was the Dream Cask worth €500 for 50cl? Before I get to that, here are some of the finer points:
Redbreast Dream Cask is a limited edition, 32 Year Old single pot still Irish whiskey – a single cask that was hand-selected last year by Master Blender, Billy Leighton, as his favourite Redbreast whiskey. The cask was chosen for having the perfect balance of pot still, Spanish oak and sherry flavours, which can usually only be achieved through blending – bringing to life Redbreast’s signature sherry style.
The whiskey was originally unveiled during a Facebook LIVE tasting to mark Redbreast’s World Whisky Day 2017 celebrations. Participants and viewers praised the quality and rarity of what is now the oldest Redbreast Irish whiskey ever to go on sale, with many requesting that the whiskey be made available to buy.
Redbreast Master Blender, Billy Leighton, commented: “In almost 40 years as a blender, Redbreast Dream Cask is a real highlight as I am able to select my own, personal dream Irish whiskey and share it with the world. Our inaugural tasting in 2017 was by far the largest whiskey tasting I have ever held, and the feedback we have received from the whiskey community on the liquid has been phenomenal, so it’s an honour to see it bottled to mark World Whisky Day 2018 – and watch this space for our 2019 plans.”
The Redbreast Dream Cask represents the perfect contribution of flavours through a careful maturation journey rounded out by a particularly sublime sherry butt. The original date of bonding goes back to 31st October 1985, with single pot still Irish whiskey filled into re-fill American Oak ex-Bourbon barrels. Then, on 8th March 2011, the whiskey was re-casked into a first-fill Oloroso Sherry-seasoned butt. The resulting whiskey is luxuriously smooth with wood resin notes reminiscent of well-polished antique furniture, lots of ripe fresh fruit flavours and an extremely balanced finish that slowly fades.
Redbreast Dream Cask is bottled without the use of chill-filtration at 46.5% ABV and is available in very limited quantities through Redbreast’s online private members’ club, The Birdhouse, for €500 per 50cl bottle.
Back to my musings:
Nose: The old classic quote about Redbreast returns – this is Christmas cake in a glass, but with Christmas pudding, brandy butter and some sherry trifle in there for good measure. Absolute decadence. I’ve had some heavily sherried whiskeys recently that just over-egged that cake – too sweet, too paxarette-esque – but this is just that rich, balanced sherry note that you want in a whiskey, where it never obliterates the fact that this is whiskey, not an actual sherry. Honeycomb, cappuccino, a little roasted tomato and Ballymaloe relish, that slightly tart acidity tingling the sinus. It’s the power of the scent here – not overpowering, just deep. This is what I wanted from the Bow Street Jameson 18 and the 2018 Midleton Very Rare – a nose that was a prelude to something.
Palate: All those stewed fruits from that festive dessert trolley, jam sponge, sherry, glacé cherries. Christmas pudding scorched with burning whiskey. There is a dryness here that I wasn’t expecting – but that tartness on the nose gives way to a tongue-smacking, mouth-coating, oily liquid. This whiskey reminds me of the cask we opened when I did the Irish Whiskey Academy back in 2014 – at the time I remember it was so good my ears popped. Just that wallop of flavours, and you find yourself smacking your lips for some time after. Spices, tobacco – the usual suspect, and more.
Finish: On and on and on – a mouthful of slowly dissolving hopjes, ripe banana, figs, the tail end of a Fisherman’s Friend, Lyons’s Black Treacle, peanut brittle. By now you have probably guessed that I have a sweet tooth, but there is a lot more in this whiskey – the TCP mouthwash dryness and the tart, bitter fruits built into the back end mean this is more than a shortcut to sensory diabetes. I could easily match this with some pitch dark chocolate or some patient zero level blue cheese – it operates on multiple levels.
Overall: So was it worth €500? If you bought one, then yes it was. But if you didn’t get one, and tried to, your yearning for it is probably more to do with the human condition than the actual liquid. We always want what we can’t have, and that longing gets worse the more elusive the item becomes. That said, I am one of the assholes who bought four Mano A Lamhs.
If you didn’t get a bottle of the Dream Cask, and are disgusted with how it played out, it’s worth pointing out that it is highly likely that World Whisky Day 2019 will probably see another release very much like this. This event was a first for IDL, so I’d give them a pass on the customer quota SNAFU and also on the poor packaging, as some purchasers found their tumblers smashed when they opened the box (replacements were sent). At least we can console ourselves with the mental image of the flippers opening box after box, filled with broken glass, slicing their greedy little hands open.
The Dream Cask is an incredible whiskey, but €500 for 50ml, not at cask strength, is a lot. Maybe you earn €60k+ and have no kids. Then for you it is well worth it. Even if you earn less than that and this is a real luxurious treat for yourself, then go on, spoil yourself, you’re worth it. But for me, almost no whiskey is worth more than €200. I know there are conditions that affect price, like rarity and demand, but as I said before, it is still just a drink (and also so much more).
Whiskey is about moments – I drank this sitting at a computer in my kitchen. If I had been at a whiskey festival, sharing it with friends, I would probably feel it was well worth the money. But this is part of the observer effect – I am studying this whiskey, rather than just enjoying it for what it is, and that changes the results. But I’m privileged to have tried it, especially in a generous 10cl sample, that came with a tumbler, pen, lapel pin, and coaster. If I had any sense I would have kept it closed and stuck the lot on eBay for €200. Je ne regrette rien.
I loved Dublin. It’s the city of my birth, where my wife and I fell in love, and where we became parents. I spent four great years there from 1999-2003 and it broke my heart to leave. But I had to face the fact that I am a culchie. Like the salmon swimming back upstream to spawn, once we had a child, we wanted to get home. If I had stayed I could have had a better stab at a career, given that 90% of the national media is based there, but we took our chances and headed south.
In the first few years after the move we went back to Dublin five or six times a year. Now we rarely go back, and when we do we see more and more decay, more addiction, more poverty, more problems. You can say it’s because life in the country has made me soft, that I’m just a nervous bogger, or you can look at the bodies in doorways, the child beggars, the aggressive junkies, the alleys you walk past and see, out of the corner of your eye, a heroin addict with his trousers down, injecting into his inner thigh. Watching the Dublin edition of The Layover last week reminded me of all that I loved about Dublin, but what I see when I go back is a world away from Bourdain’s frenetic, joyous journey through the city and more like Johnny’s nocturnal odyssey through London in Mike Leigh’s Naked. This ailing city was never somewhere I could call home.
My house now overlooks Midleton distillery. It’s the first thing I see when I get up in the morning, and the vapours from the chimney are a good indication of how the weather is outside. There are warehouses around the distillery itself, and more warehousing out past my house in the woods of Dungourney, not far from where the whiskey river rises. At least once a day, either on the way to or from work, I will meet a grain truck, a lorry loaded with casks, or a spirit tanker on the roads, because Midleton distillery is a whiskey super producer. Just as well, as the demand for what they make is rocketing. I’ve no doubt that Midleton, Bushmills, Cooley, West Cork and Dingle could probably sell every single drop in their warehouses right now, but that isn’t going to happen as this is a long game. Besides, it’s Jameson that the world is screaming for, and Midleton is the Klondike of this liquid gold rush. John Teeling’s recent warnings of a whiskey shortage made for a great headline, but when someone who is making and selling whiskey to third parties is telling you that there is a looming shortage – thus encouraging greater demand and prices – you need to engage the critical faculties a little bit more. I’ve been hearing various reports about dwindling mature stocks for years, but it would appear that if you have a good working relationship with one of the big three, then you are good. I digress.
It irks me that Jameson labels still bear the address of Bow Street, a location that may be home to their biggest tourist attraction, and is a very central to the history of the brand and Irish whiskey itself. But as I pointed out previously, Bow Street is a phantom limb – it has no real bearing on the production of Jameson today. Or, at least, that’s how it was.
The massive refurb of Bow Street by the team behind the Guinness Storehouse cost 11m and saw Bow Street take tours to the next level. However, one of the most interesting additions to the venue was an actual functioning warehouse space – the first in Dublin in decades. And so it was that IDL relaunched their 18-year-old premium blend as Jameson Bow Street 18-year-old – the first Jameson in decades that had the right to put Bow Street on the labels. And if this wasn’t enough, they have lodged plans for new labels for standard Jameson that remove Bow Street from the address.
As a proud Midletonian, this is great news. The question now is – will this matter to America? That is, after all, where it is all happening for Irish whiskey, with those insane growth figures being largely centred on the US and largely centred on Jameson sales therein. So how discerning those drinkers are remains to be seen – Jameson has triumphed as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-short everyman. Could a slight change to labels get people wondering that is going on? Or is it likely that the loss of the Bow Street address on the labels will make little difference, especially given that they will have Midleton distillery’s address on there? But the change on the standard Jameson labels certainly amplifies the Bow Street address on the 18 year old – it highlights that this is the first whiskey in decades to spend any time in Dublin at all (Teelings et al age their whiskey elsewhere).
So the Bow Street address is back, not just as a nod to history but as a live maturation site. As for the whiskey itself, here is a breakdown:
Jameson Irish whiskey, which is produced by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has today announced the launch of Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength; the first cask strength Jameson to be available globally, which finishes its maturation in Dublin’s only live Maturation House in the Jameson Distillery Bow Street. A reinterpretation of the revered Jameson 18 Years, the new expression celebrates Jameson’s Dublin heritage by returning part of the production process to the brand’s original home in Smithfield for the first time since 1975.
Distilled and matured at the Midleton Distillery, Co. Cork, Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength is the new head of the Jameson family. After spending 18 years in a collection of bourbon and sherry casks, the blend of pot still and grain Irish whiskeys has been married together and re-casked in first-fill ex-bourbon American oak barrels for a final six to 12 months in the Maturation House at the Jameson Distillery Bow Street.
‘Marrying’ is a traditional method of re-casking batches of vatted whiskey and re-warehousing it to ensure infusion before bottling. The first batch is presented at 55.3% ABV without the use of chill filtration and will be available in 20 markets from July 2018 at the RRP of €240.
Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Midleton Distillery, commented: “I’ve long had the unique luxury of being able to taste Jameson straight from the barrel at cask strength. With this first ever global launch of a cask strength Jameson, I’m thrilled that Irish whiskey fans around the world can now experience the full intensity of our whiskey or add a few drops of water to enjoy it at their own preferred strength.
“As a tribute to John Jameson’s distilling legacy in Smithfield, we’ve introduced some methods that would have been employed in days past. The final maturation period in Bow Street is our nod to the traditional “marrying” method. We’ve put our own Jameson stamp on it by using first-fill bourbon barrels, whereas the traditional approach would be to use casks multiple times. I like to think of the whiskey getting engaged in Midleton and then “married” in Dublin!”
Clearly, no one is going to think that the period spent in Dublin has anything to do with how it tastes. I have a shit Dub accent, but that’s because I spent four years living there and wanted desperately to fit in, before realising I preferred agricultural shows to teenage riots, wide open spaces to packed Luases, and the rolling hills of Midleton to the Liffey at low tide. Besides, it is unlikely that anyone would want to detect notes of Dublin city centre – packed DART on a rainy day, methdone on the top deck of the 29A, spicebags at dawn, sticky paving on Grafton Street in summer, and an urban sprawl that needs to appoint Ra’s Al Gul as Lord Mayor. When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart, but every time I go back I am more and more convinced that I did the right thing by leaving. My time spent there, much like the time the Bow Street 18 spent in the city, was an enjoyable interlude, but we are both from Cork, and better for it.
The big news item in the press release was not that this was the first cask-strength Jameson, nor was it the Bow Street maturation period, but rather the price. Jameson 18 used to be about €130, although when they cleared it out in Tesco a year or two ago before the relaunch, it went for €85. Salutations to anyone who got it then.
Obviously, this being cask strength makes it worth more – let’s say €180. The remaining €60 is presumably for those who like the Dublin finish, and also the premium packaging. The presentation is a lot more like its updated cousin, Midleton Very Rare, as these blurry photos show – basically, there is a lot more wood and copper than the old 18:
But wait – there’s more:
Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength is presented in a premium bottle design that truly reflects the quality and rarity of the liquid within. The bottle features 18 facets, one for each year of maturation, and the wooden presentation box celebrates the traditional pot stills used during the production process. In addition, a unique copper coin located underneath Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength bottles provides Jameson fans with access to an exclusive online portal where they can delve deeper into the story of the whiskey which bears the Bow Street name.
This, I presume, is aimed at the travel retail and tourist market. Nobody else really gives a fuck about portals, unless they lead to another realm populated with Lovecraftian abominations and free booze. It reminds me of Irish Distillers’ tourism project, The Cork Whiskey Way. It is/was a series of classic Cork pubs – and (ugh) SoHo – with four premium Midleton whiskeys in each of them, and the pubs were linked by QR codes. I can’t even remember how it was meant to work (here is an explanation), and doubt very much that it did, but this was four years ago when whiskey didn’t just sell itself and elaborate gimmicks were sometimes required. As an aside, if you want to do a trip around Cork that is whiskey based, Eric Ryan – a distiller, whiskey collector and history buff – does a brilliant whiskey walk around the important sites of Cork distilling. I did it last year and it is a great way to spend an afternoon, with great whiskeys, good food, interesting chat and a lot of craic.
Back to the Bow Street 18, and on to some typically incoherent tasting notes.
On the nose – expecting serious blowback from the strength, but this really is rather mellow. A lot of toasted pine nuts, vanilla, maybe a little smokey bacon lurking in there somewhere. I need to work on the nose with this one – nothing jumps out at me here, all very nuanced, very mellow. Not sure I enjoy that, as I’m really more of a sturm und drang kind of guy. Furniture polish, and, oh fuck it, the inside of a grand piano. Please, kill me now.
On the palate – it’s clobberin’ time. So bizarre having any Jameson at cask strength – if only Midleton Very Rare came in a CS edition. But in the meantime, this will do – smooth, with a wallop. Banana, those toffee notes I always look for, loads of vanilla, that slight acetone element carried over from the furniture polish detected on the nose. I like this. The finish is long and lingering, but that is the least you would expect from an 18 year old cask-strength whiskey. I should probably add some water, but life is short so you need to take large bites out of it. I’ll dilute when I’m dead.
From Brian Townsend’s Lost Distilleries Of Ireland.
From Brian Townsend’s Lost Distilleries Of Ireland.
It comes down to this – is the Jameson Bow Street cask-strength whiskey worth €240? Yes and no. For whiskey nerds, I would tend towards a no. You could buy a Redbreast 21 and a Redbreast 12 for that money, or three Redbreast CSs, or a load of John’s Lanes, or any number of absolutely beautiful, diverse whiskeys from Midleton, because this isn’t just one distillery, it is really four distilleries that happen to be placed on one site. A Scottish friend was staying at my house some time back and when I pointed out the distillery to him, he said it was a pity it was so unsightly. I felt quite insulted. It’s as simple as this – without Midleton, Irish whiskey would be fucked. They consolidated the old firms and created a glistening machine that creates multiple expressions and helped keep a category alive. I bristled slightly when I heard him tell me that the distillery isn’t pretty enough – it was, for a long time, Irish whiskey’s last hope, a distilling Noah’s Ark, keeping the category going through those cruel years in the Seventies and Eighties when nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted anything to do with Irish whiskey. Midleton distillery may not have the aesthetics of a UNESCO world heritage site, but it is a working distillery, one that has been thumping out the whiskey for four decades and shows no sign of slowing.
The new Bow Street 18 has a little bit of added value in packaging and narrative, and would make an ideal gift for the returning tourist, eager to bring a little piece of Dublin back home with them. But this isn’t one for the hardcore whiskey fan, or the guy who earns sod-all PA. If this is the jumping off point for premiumisation, so be it – the oligarchs are welcome to whatever else Midleton can rattle out. For my money MVR is a better value dram, despite its uninspiring 40% bottling strength, while the Dair Ghaelach, at €260, continues to be vastly superior to both MVR and BS18.
Finally, I hate to be the ignoramus who keeps saying a drink is ‘just a blend’, but that is, in the end, what this is. However, perhaps it is just too subtle for a culchie like me, that if I was a fey flaneur wracked with galloping consumption and urbane ennui I might be able to dig its subtlety, but for me there are many, many other superior, better value whiskeys from Midleton that the world needs to drink before they start throwing down €240 on a history lesson.
On that note, I’d like to thank my neighbours in Irish Distillers Limited for giving me this bottle for free. Awwwwwwwkward.
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.”
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.