It was another boom year for Irish whiskey – Blackwater and Powerscourt both came to life, Nephin are gearing up to build, and Bono and Paddy McKillen bought into a proposed distillery for Monasterevin. It is an exciting time, and a sure sign that Irish whiskey was accelerating was the appearance of our first celebrity whiskey.
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.
Yes, that 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.