All really is quiet on New Year’s Day. Watching the sun rise over Garryvoe with the little guys.
A few photos from various rambles up the Galtees. We should all get out more. Ireland is at its most serene and beautiful when you get to the summit of a mountain on a clear day and all you can hear is the wind and the jackhammering of your heart as you drink in a hundred miles of scenery. It makes you realise that, beyond all the negativity in the press and misery we sometimes like to wallow in, Ireland is a pretty special place. And sher a bit of exercise wouldn’t go astray, would it?
It would appear that I have a not-drinking problem.
I love Edinburgh. It is a beautiful, upside-down and inside-out Rubiks Cube of a city, forever shifting and changing, and not just because of the trams and the excavations they wrought on its beautiful landscape. As the writer Murdo Macdonald said, Edinburgh is a city that makes you think about what a city should be. It has incredible history, architecture, modern, functional planning, and a sense that you will never know all its mysteries. I’ve been going there every year since an ex brought me over to meet her folks about 20 years ago. We parted, but my love for the city burns brighter every time I visit. And since I turned into some sort of whisky cult member, the city has revealed another piece of its puzzle to me. So this year was like a trip to Jonestown for me.
First up was a visit to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a bite to eat and some drams. Operated as a members club, they offer their own bottlings, all with the same intriguing labels describing the flavours in the most bizarre and esoteric ways. The original site of the society, founded in 1983, was down in Leith in a venue known as The Vaults, but that seemed a bit far away so we visited the Queen Street branch, which – like almost all the buildings in Edinburgh city centre – was rather beautiful. After an especially classy burger and chips, we settled down for a few tastings, randomly selecting them with the help of the staff. The bottlings are anonymous save for the tasting notes and titles, and are presented at cask strength and without chill filtration. This is what R. Kelly might call real talk – pure and honest whisky, stripped of all the marketing bumpf, the spiel about the days of yore, the recalling of some pre-industrial Never Never Land. This is the beast in its natural state; naked, growling, unchained. These iconic, relatively anonymous green bottles let the drink do the talking: They all look the same, save for the number and the notes. It is pure whisky served in a place of worship – we spend the evening sipping, nosing, sharing, laughing and just kicking back and geeking out. The photos show some of the bottlings we sampled, and this is the one I brought home:
Who could resist that? Certainly not me, but then I’m fairly sure that I am at least 34% bumblebee.
Next on the list was WM Cadenhead’s, a shop that refuses to modernise – and is all the better for it. The recent online lottery on Master Of Malt for the new Yamazaki Sherry Cask makes you realise that Cadenehead’s is special – they just about have a website, do not sell online and have all their stock on a chalkboard – or an old ledger that looks like something from Hogwarts. They stock rare and valuable whiskies, some from silent distilleries, and they don’t charge the world. I bought a 23YO Ledaig from Tobermory, a steal at about the 100 mark. If this was an official distillery release I would have been paying double that – at least.
The shop also offers cask ends – they put any drops left into small 20cl bottles so you can try a few different samples without breaking the bank. I bought a 13YO Springbank ‘Green’. The ‘green’ part is a code for ‘organic’, but they can’t officially call it that as – according to the staff member I spoke to – someone in Springbank screwed up the paperwork and they were unable to get it certified organic. I tried the organic Benromach at Whiskey Live Dublin, and was not overly impressed – but then, it was late in the day and I was become overwrought from all the great drams. The Springbank is great, that sherry cask kick is something my bumblebee tastebuds crave, but it has an aniseed, liquorice sweetness in the aftermath that really takes it beyond standard issue. In both the SMWS and Cadenheads I asked for Irish whiskey – both places had bottlings from an ‘unnamed’ Irish distillery. Can you guess which one it was? Here’s a clue:
We also stopped off at the St Vincent, not far from George’s Street, alongside the church yer man from Rockstar Games bought because he had stacks of cash and sher why not.
The guys in the Vin have started offering grub as well as a decent selection of whisky, bourbon, craft beers et al. I opted for the Dutch Rudder – a burger with peanut mayo and edam. Yes I eat a lot of burgers. Yes I used to be a chef in an upmarket bistro. No I don’t feel any shame. Yes a Dutch Rudder is a sex thing. And yes it was a great burger.
On my way back from Scotland I had a few hours to peruse the whisky in the airport. It was like a zombie film, except non-age statement whisky was patient zero and everyone had been bitten already. I actually found it hard to locate age-statement whiskies, and when I asked a staff member about the epidemic of NAS, they gave the usual spiel about how age statements were the real scam, that the NAS movement was about getting back to how it used to be, and blah blah blah. It seems I am the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid on this matter. Or maybe I’ve just been drinking the wrong Kool-Aid, maybe there is less well-aged Kool-Aid out there that I just haven’t tried yet and that will change my mind. Or maybe I am just too insecure to rely on taste alone and live without a number on the label telling me how much I should appreciate the liquid within. Or maybe I simply spend too much time thinking about these things when I should be helping my kids with their homework. In fact, one of my daughter’s homework tasks this evening was coming up with metaphors to complete statements; one was ‘Chocolate is….’. My suggestion was ‘chocolate is getting punched in the face with happiness’. Which is actually the title of one of the bottlings we sampled in the SMWS.
I have no shame. And I also have no money, as I came home with this lot:
Me explaining my purchases to my wife:
In the late Nineteenth century, the Scots adulterated our whiskey because it was better. They passed their own off as Irish because our whiskey was better. They savaged our industry and tarriffed it out of business because our whiskey was better, and they bought up and shut many distilleries in Ulster because our whiskey was better.
The Scotch industry’s products I like a lot. Their history I despise.
The Irish and the Scots have had their disputes. Over the centuries we have slaughtered each other on the battlefield, sometimes at the behest of the same cruel master, sometimes just for the hell of it. But the truth is that for two nations divided by water, we are effectively the same people. Our histories are intertwined to the point that it is hard to tell which where we begin and they end. Many of our names, such as MacSweeney and MacCabe came from the gallowglass, elite aristocratic mercenaries who settled here in the 13th and 16th centuries. Not long after this second influx of exiled gallowglass, the plantation of Ulster began – and Bushmills distillery was founded. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. The quote above was taken from the Irish Whiskey Society forum and it encapsulates an attitude that pervades the Irish whiskey scene. There is a feeling that the Scots stole our thunder – we invented the drink, they became known for it and built a magnificent industry on ‘our’ idea. They are Zuckerberg, we are the Winklevoss twins. We are Woz, they are Jobs. We created something, they made it their own. Of course, this is a reductive approach to it – this incredible product deserved to be shared with the world, it was the same Irish monks who discovered distilling that then brought it to Islay, the little island that lies between Northern Ireland and Scotland. But any yah-booing does us both a disservice, for just like our people, history and culture, our variations on this one theme are more alike than they are different. Yet I’ve felt the hot rush of resentment when Scottish friends tell me that they think John’s Lane is ‘pisswater’ or that Irish whiskey ‘isn’t really whiskey at all’ – not to mention the classic line “you need that third distillation, but we get it right the second time”.
But we can focus on the differences or we can focus on the similarities; our communal glass can be half empty, or it can be half full. The divisions that plague the community of Northern Ireland are an example of people looking to make ‘others’ of their neighbours, seeing only difference. But they are, effectively, the same – be it Protestant or Catholic, whisky or whiskey, ultimately everyone is worshipping the same holy spirits.
In the Scots spirit world, few have had the evangelic appeal of Charles MacLean. An author, presenter, bon viveur and raconteur, to me he personifies all that is great about Scotch whisky – a passion for good food, good fun, a good story, and a great dram. I had the pleasure of meeting his bewhiskered and bekilted self at Strathisla last year, where he hosted a dinner accompanied by some cask strength drams.
A masterful speaker, his tasting notes are made up more or less on the spot, and change constantly, moving from random comparisons to vegetal notes, to bath salts, to soft leather, to detergent; and he is usually right.
So when the IWS arranged for him to speak in Dublin in the significant venue of Wynns Hotel, I had to be there. Granted, it clashed with the Cork IWS branch’s tasting with the aforementioned Bushmills, but this was an opportunity to celebrate our shared heritage with some fantastic drams drawn from the vaults of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
It was booked out, as the current president of the IWS, Peter White, told us. Peter is what whisky geeks call a peathead – he makes a pilgrimage to Islay each year for the whisky festival, and obviously loves the briney, smokey drams – ironic, given that he is a firefighter. We had an introduction by Peter, and then a few words from Fionnan O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart. It was Fionnan’s book that inspired MacLean to speak in Dublin, having written to him to congratulate him on such a fine work. In fact, if you want to pick a single Irish text to read to learn more about Irish whiskey, it is now the go-to.
And so MacLean – wearing his trews, as is the tradition for a Scots gentleman abroad – took the floor. He spoke for a little over two hours, we had six great drams, lots of laughs, a brief chemistry lesson, and some great stories both from Maclean’s life and from whisky lore. I won’t go into the details, as I recorded the whole thing. You can listen to it below.
The audio isn’t the best thanks to my ailing iPhone, but hopefully MacLean’s velvety tones will not be swamped by lo-fi hiss and my occasional yawping.
And here are some pics of the various bottlings:
I popped into the Celtic Whiskey Shop last week whilst killing time before a funeral. The staff member I spoke to made this point about Scotland’s famous whisky regions – region really doesn’t exist any more; we live in a post-whisky region world. He said that, apart from the bonfire of congeners that is Islay, most Scotch styles are not dictated by geography. Longitude and latitude no longer figure as controlling influences on flavour profile – if they ever did. The same obviously goes for here – on a small island, the difference between whiskey from Cooley or Dingle will be minimal. Ingredients and production methods are the ultimate decider. It’s not in the where, but the how. And so it holds that really, the difference between Dingle whiskey and Scapa ultimately isn’t something worth fighting over – both come, as the Celts do, from the same traditions, the same rugged landscapes, the same sad and beautiful history. The idea that one nation’s product is the ‘best’ is incredibly limiting – to claim our’s is best or their’s is lesser is to deny yourself the full epicurean experience, and makes us sound bitter. Maybe it’s time to let the past go. After all, when the world’s number one whiskey is Canadian, and the Asian whisky markets are booming, it might be time to recall our gallowglass ancestors and unite under one flag…until March 19th in the Aviva, of course. Then it’s hammer time.
Midleton is a bastardisation. The name actually comes from the notion that it was the middle town between Cork city and Youghal. Not the most flattering name for a place – the sole distinguishing fact about is that it lies between two places that have names with local meaning. But its actual name goes considerably farther back. In around 1100AD, Cistercian monks from the Burgundy region of France built a monastery in the town, located where the Church Of St John The Baptist sits now (next to the Mad Monk craft beer pub, if you need a more secular landmark).
A hundred yards past this site, the Owenacurra river runs, and, just on the other side of the river, I sit typing this in my kitchen. The name Owenacurra comes from the Irish ‘Abhainn Na Cora’ – The River Of The Weirs, for betwixt my home and the site of the monastery, there was one of several weirs. And this was where the town took its name – Mainistir Na Corrann; The Monastery By The Weir.
It seems fitting that in a town built around a monastery, the area’s most famous product was invented by Irish monks. For it was they who discovered the alembic still on their travels across Europe. Moorish alchemists used it to distill essential oils – but Irish monks, dab hands at brewing, saw another potential use. They distilled their ale into what we would now call new-make spirit, and then once it started being stored in casks, whiskey was born. The Irish monks brought this incredible knowledge across Europe, most famously when they landed at Islay off the coast of Scotland – where the Scots claim whisky was first created. Of course, they are not the only ones with a loose grasp on history – even here in Midleton, few people remember that there used to be two distilleries in the town. In the 1800s, the Owenacurra river was the engine that drove Hackett’s distillery, located close to Avoncore and the hulking presence of the Erin Foods silo.
The Hackett’s didn’t have the best of luck, as local historian Tony Harpur points out in his excellent blog, Midleton With 1 D:
The other establishment producing alcohol in Midleton was Hackett’s Distillery, which must have been in operation in 1824 in order to be included in the Pigot’s list. Called James Hackett & Co, this was run by a number of brothers who were descended from a family of leather tanners in Cork. The Hacketts took advantage of the 1823 Excise Act to found their newly built distillery on a plot of land between the Mill Road and the banks of the Owenacurra, just north of Midleton. But they got into difficulties for some reason – presumably Fr Mathew had something to do with it. Another issue was a family row – one brother withdrew his share of the capital and went off to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania in Australia) and set up a distillery there!
Given that Tasmania was then the principal dumping fround for all sorts of criminals convicted by the law courts in Britain and Ireland, the establishment of a distillery there did not bode well and eventually the authorities took fright and closed the distillery down. The government also delayed in paying out compensation for the closure so the brother returned to Ireland virtually penniless. By 1850 the Hacketts had put the premises up for sale on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court (a new court established by the British government to sell off bankrupted Irish landed property). It was later acquired by the Hallinans who ran it as a grain mill.
Sadly, nothing remains of this distillery, which, bizarrely, seems to have been built from stones removed from the site of the medieval Cistercian monastery of Choreabbey (Midleton). Even the stone from the old St John the Baptist Church of Ireland seems to have been incorporated into Hackett’s distillery – the authorities were building an new church at the time! It gives a whole new meaning to the Irish phrase ‘holy water’, a euphemism for whiskey and poitin!
The downfall of the Hacketts saw them slump into poverty – quite a fall for merchant princes who once lived in Lotamore House, which also was once home to Sir Anthony Perrier, one of the first inventors of the continuous still – later to become the Coffey Still.
This book gives a sense of the Hacketts’ decline:
The point about them preferring to eat sheep’s head and wallow in poverty rather than turn to the nearest distillers for help was brought to my attention by another local historian, Barry Crockett. Barry is born of distilling lore – literally. His father Max was master distiller in Midleton distillery, and lived on-site in the Distiller’s Cottage (ironically, a rather large building with a couple of dozen rooms). It was here that Barry was born, and he grew up to be in charge of Midleton distillery, and played a very large role in the rebirth of Irish whiskey we are now seeing. With a lead-in time of ten to 20 years for premium stocks, it was in Barry’s time in charge that the plans were laid that are now coming to fruition. He is retired now, but still plays an active role in the distillery – last year he gave a talk on the history of the distillery, and it was during this that he spoke of the Hackett’s and their loathing for the Murphy brothers, who ran Midleton distillery with a keen business instinct. He said that the Murphy ledgers and papers held almost no records of the times, other than business data. One exception was the request by the brothers to their insurer to be allowed to use their mill to grind flour for locals during the Famine. They were refused. In contrast, Bartholomew Hackett was a poor businessman but an obsessive diarist, and his colourful papers – of which there are several volumes – are kept in the city and county archives in another distilling heritage area, Blackpool.
But back to Midleton: The Hacketts used the Owenacurra to distill, but the Murphys used the second river in the town, known as the Dungourney river (actually named the Roxboro). It rises in Clonmult, site of a War Of Independence-era massacre, and passes through the village of Dungourney, very close to the woodland area where Irish Distillers have built a large maturation complex: If we get another winter like those in 2009/2010, it will be interesting to see if the whiskey aging up there in the snow-bound hills is any different from the maturing stock in the town where milder temperatures prevail. That said, any difference will be so minor that it would take a considerably more forensic palate than mine to discern any difference.
But the Dungourney river isn’t the only water source that Midleton distillery takes water from.
The whole town of Midleton is built on limestone. This makes the water hard, and perfect for distilling. It also means the porous rock beneath our feet is riddled with caves. Roughly halfway between the site of Hacketts and the Jameson Heritage Centre lies the town’s award-winning SuperValu. When it was being built, it was said that more steel and concrete went into the ground as was over it, as the site previously hosted a hotel which slowly came asunder as the ground beneath it gave way. In fact, in the last couple of years, three cottages on Park Street, to the rear of the SuperValu, started to subside.
Through some of this sprawling network of caves, a small river runs. Mostly underground, it makes a rare appearance in a dip on the grounds of Midleton College, a spot where we used to smoke, and sixth years used to prove their manliness by sneaking through the chest-deep, ice-cold waters in total darkness to get into Midleton Distillery via another sinkhole on the other side of the wall. Here is a terrible map:
The cluster of foliage right below the all-weather hockey pitch is the college sinkhole, while the tree just below it on the other side of the wall is where the distillery side access point is. The white rectangle is the beautiful Garden Still House. Here’s a couple of photos of the dip down to the water from the distillery side:
There is a point to all this waffling I’m doing – and it all comes down to the recent floods here in Midleton. Both rivers burst their banks – an event which hasn’t happened in about 40-plus years. The weir in the gif at the top – located at the site of the Hackett distillery – was totally submerged as the Owenacurra burst its banks at Avoncore and also broke downriver into my estate. My house was spared, others in my estate were not so lucky. The Dungourney river also burst, flooding the lower half of the town, including the Jameson Heritage Centre. But the real damage was past the new distillery, as the water above and below ground reached capacity and flooded the area. The rugby pitch was flooded, Lauriston estate was flooded, and the back of the distillery warehouses was hit too.
This image shows that side:
Or this helpful gif:
What you can see there is a small portion of the 28 acres of farmland that was under up to three feet of water. If the distillery warehouses weren’t there, the whole town would have been hit by that water. And yet there are some who blame the warehouse complex, in classic luddite style. The phrase ‘now I’m no engineer but…’ now causes as much anguish in me as ‘now I’m not a racist but….’. Invariably what comes next is some incredibly stupid theory about how the warehouses caused the waters to back up. Did they fuck. If the distillery wasn’t using the water from the river and underground, we would be flooding every winter. Apart from that, when floods did come, it was IDL who brought in private contractors to clear the flooding from the whole area – the estate across the road, the rugby club, and their own site.
This video show just how far upriver from the town the flooding goes:
Throughout human history, we have built on floodplains. They have the fertile soil, the trade routes, the water – they are the obviously place to build settlements. But sometimes, as the term ‘floodplain’ suggests, they flood. Midleton has one of the world’s greatest distilleries because we live on a floodplain – fertile ground to grow lots of high-grade barley, plenty of water to make whiskey, and plenty of people settled nearby to work there. As a final denouement and debunking of the musing of a ‘non-engineer’, the basement of the town hospital flooded days after the waters had subsided. The hospital is on a raised area, overlooking the town; meaning the water came up from underneath. This hospital was also once the town Poor House – the same Poor House overseen by Bartholomew James Hackett, before he slipped into obscurity and became the Midleton distiller that time forgot.
Few people have any real idea what public relations actually entails. I certainly didn’t until I managed to blag my way into a summer internship in a high-profile firm in 2001. It was a great experience – it was a well-established Dublin-based company that mostly dealt with luxury brands and business-to-consumer stuff. It was also quite the education – up to that point I had no clue how to even answer a phone properly. Thankfully on the first day someone took the time to tell me that picking up the phone and yawping ‘hullo’ down the phone was simply not the done thing. I somehow mastered answering the phone in a semi-professional manner, and a few other basic tasks – I was basically Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, only with a flat east Cork accent.
During my time with the firm I got to work with and meet lots of great people, but learned early on that it’s not all smiles and sunshine. PR agencies are the firewall that protects the client from the media-driven outrage-athon, and they get little thanks for it. So always be nice to the PR firm. And I’m not just saying that because I got this in the post today:
I first met the guys from Burrell PR around this time last year when they helped organise the broadcast of Sean Moncrieff’s Movies and Booze on Newstalk down in the distillery in Midleton; you can read my coverage of the event here. The focus there was also on this great drink. Redbreast was the first pot still whiskey I tried and it is still one of my favourite whiskeys. As Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett describes it, it’s Christmas cake in a glass – stewed winter fruits, toasted nuts and oak, and that rich warm glow, a velvet thickness that just wraps itself around you. If you are looking for a gift for the whiskey fan – be they novice or nerd – Redbreast is a great, affordable option; at 65 yoyo, it is actually great value for money… in whiskey terms, at least. Again, I’m not just saying that because I got a bottle of it as a present. And anyway, I don’t think a post about whiskey on Ireland’s least successful blog qualifies as ‘leveraged coverage by a key influencer’ or even makes me as a ‘bribe unit‘. But as today is my last day off before nine days straight working in one of the busiest A&Es in the country, it really did lift my spirits. So thank you.
The Finnish language has no gender. That is to say, its pronouns are gender neutral and the language completely lacks grammatical gender. One example is the word ‘han’ – a gender neutral word that means both he and she, meaning that when relating a story about a boy and girl on a date, you have to be extra careful when relating who said and what and to whom. The Finns themselves would say that this facet of their incredibly complex language has led to one of the most equal societies in Europe. And they may be right. Sometimes it can be see just how gender-codified our world is. I see it daily in my work – patients will address male nurses as ‘doctor’ and female doctors as ‘nurse’. Granted, it is mainly the older patients – the same ones who occasionally call me doctor or even ‘Father’. But we gender codify everything – jobs, films, books, breeds of dog, and even food and drink. Which brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey.
The whiskey scene is completely gender polluted – go to almost any event and it will be packed with young male hipsters or old ‘George-from-Glenroe’ types (I’m the latter). You may see the odd wife or girlfriend, but overall, they are the minority – recent statistics suggest that globally women make up just 25% of whiskey drinkers. It is a fantastic drink, not just because of its incredible complexity and depth, but also because it is innately Irish – it is a travesty that more than half the population might be slow to try it because it is seen as ‘a man’s drink’. But joining a whiskey society can seem daunting, as they often bear a passing resemblance to a Star Trek convention.
So the River Lee Hotel is trying to change that. They held a whiskey-tasting evening specifically aimed at women in the surrounds of their beautiful hotel, a stone’s throw from the old Crosses Green and North Mall distilling sites.
The event was hosted by Karen Cotter, above, currently master distiller of the micro-distillery in Midleton. She guided the audience through the classic Redbreast 12 year old, Jameson Black Barrel, Powers 12 year old – and the wonderful Green Spot, allegedly the biggest hit with female drinkers.
Those in the distilling trade say it’s because Green Spot has a lightness, a fresh, almost-menthol like finish that goes over well. However, the suggestion that the female palate needs a lighter whiskey is ridiculous – women have been scientifically proved to have a better sense of taste than men, so they should get even more from one of the big hitters like Powers John’s Lane or cask-strength Redbreast. In fact, one of the marketing team at Jameson told me she believed Green Spot was a hit with women simply because it looks like a bottle of wine.
Anyway, enough mansplaining – here’s the blurb:
The River Lee Winter Whiskey Club celebrated its inaugural session with a special masterclass entitled ‘Women & Whiskey’ led by female distiller Karen Cotter. Gathered with Cotter was a largely female audience who experienced a tasting flight of Ireland’s finest whiskeys on the night, including Redbreast 12 year old, Greenspot, Jameson Black Barrel and Powers 12 year old.
Karen Cotter, distiller at the Microdistillery at the Jameson Experience Midleton, which is part of Irish Distillers, said: “Jameson has led the current surge in popularity of Irish whiskey – we’ve grown from less than 500,000 cases in the mid-1990s to 5 million cases this year. Jameson’s signature smooth taste profile, Irish character and authenticity have won legions of fans globally and we have effectively communicated with consumers through marketing properties such as film and St. Patrick’s Day. Ultimately, it’s the taste of the product that secures its success and future potential – and we’ve got that in spades across our whole portfolio.”
Research reveals that women make up just 25 per cent of whisky drinkers worldwide*, but that number is increasing as cocktail culture becomes embedded in society and the appreciation of provenance and taste grows. Woman are joining the ranks of self-confessed whiskey aficionados such as Christina Hendricks and Lady Gaga, who credits Jameson for helping her song writing.
The River Lee has a number cultural events planned for the Winter Whiskey Club in the New Year including Whiskey & Culture with Sean O’Riordan, Whiskey & Fashion with the Irish Year of Design and Whiskey & Music with Triskal Arts Centre and Other Voices.
For more information on upcoming Winter Whiskey events at the River Lee or to make a reservation visit www.doylecollection.com/hotels/the-river–lee–hotel.
Here are some pics from the event:
And if you think this entire post is just sexist nonsense, just be glad I didn’t go with any of these titles:
- Drammer Queens
- Pot stiletto
- Whiskey whimen
- And so on.
As far as I’m concerned, the more people drinking whiskey, the better for both consumers and the industry. Here’s to diversity.
Dublin isn’t Ireland. Obviously, it is part of the Republic and we all love it very much, but as a representation of what Ireland is, it is far from the definitive article. When you meet people abroad who tell you they’ve been to Ireland because they spent a weekend in Dublin, there is always the urge to point out that far from the urban sprawls of our dirty-beautiful capital, there are huge expanses of open country, peppered with the odd house, terrible WiFi and breathtaking scenery.
In terms of ‘places that are not Dublin’, Dingle in West Kerry is as good an example as any: Remote, stunning, and devoid of the brash cacophony of The Pale. My love affair with Dingle started after I finished my Leaving Cert. A group of us drove to Schull, spent two days on the lash, then I hitched down to Dingle (this was back in the days when you were able to hitch without ending up in The Hills Have Eyes). In Dingle I met up with my girlfriend and in an abandoned house not far from the village, I lost my virginity to her. It might not seem like the most romantic of spots, surrounded by the ghosts of the faithful departed, but it was, as it always is, a turning point.
Years later I went back to Dingle, this time with another girl, a Scot who was obsessed with Fungi, the harbour’s resident dolphin for the past three decades. On my 23rd birthday, we went out into the harbor and she swam with Fungi in the middle of a solar eclipse. Bizarre. We later went our separate ways, I married and settled down, but this year I went back to Dingle consumed with another great love affair – whiskey. I spent four days in Dingle Distillery – a stone’s throw from the abandoned house I stayed in all those years before. The distillery is compact and bijou, staffed by a group of young lads with enthusiasm and passion to burn.
I got to meet Oliver Hughes, the visionary behind The Porterhouse and the distillery. Oliver is an interesting guy, constantly moving, bristling with energy and ideas. A former criminal barrister, I’d imagine he was a formidable opponent to face across the courts. He was a great host, generous with his time and his passion for the area, where he too had found love, having brought his girlfriend-now-wife there many years before.
While we were there the distillery was visited by one of the Founding Fathers, the title for investors and supporters who bought a cask to help fund the distillery. Bob Dunfey’s name may not mean much to you, but he holds a very important role in Irish politics. Bob and his brother attended a meal during the very early stages of the Peace Process, and shocked the world by inviting Gerry Adams despite the fact that Martin Trimble would be attending. It may not seem like a big deal now, but back then it caused consternation, with many invited guests threatening to pull out. But they didn’t, and it was the start of an incredibly important period of our history.
Bob, who had a background in hospitality, cracked open his cask in the distillery, and shared it with us. It was just another special moment from a very special place.
On one of the evenings Oliver drove us out around Slea Head. We stopped off to admire Inishtooskert, the island better known as The Sleeping Giant. The spot popped into my mind as I read an email informing me that Dingle’s other giant is about to awaken from its three-year sleep:
After three years of careful maturation on the Corca Dhuibhne coast, the first public samples of Dingle Whiskey are just about ready to be pulled from cask! Specifically, we’ll be dipping our glasses into Cask #2 – a first-fill American white oak barrel seasoned with bourbon, filled to the brim with our own triple distilled single malt, left to sit until December 20th and, on that auspicious upcoming occasion, bottled at cask strength for your own full enjoyment! The day that it’s bottled, our little distillate ceases to be spirit and finally takes its place among the whiskeys of the world.
And we’ve been at it a while now. The first-to-start in what has recently grown into an erupting craft distilling movement, the Dingle Distillery’s first three-year-old will also offer tipplers their first taste of Irish craythur crafted outside the ‘big three’ producers in over thirty-five years. Using Irish barley, Irish mash bills, and three small pot stills hand designed by legendary distiller John McDougall, the Dingle distillery aims to make both artisan single malt and single pot still expressions – the first of which is finally ready to call itself whiskey.
We may have started doing this back in 2012, but Irish whiskey takes a while. As the barrels bask in the warm gulf-stream summers and cool winters of the Irish southwest, the oak staves expand and contract, allowing the spirit to breathe and injecting it in return with oaky tannins, sweet vanillins, honeyed bourbon residues and in the case of our own seaside warehouse, a brine-stung breeze that leaves one last signature of place on this famous old process. Whatever it tastes like, this first small batch sample will be unmistakably a spirit of Dingle…
The price for this limited edition whiskey is €350. To order your bottle, contact The Dingle Distillery.
If you’re thinking ‘but didn’t they already release a whiskey?’ then you are sort-of right – they released a Cooley blend as a revenue generator.
I bought one of the last bottles of it when I was down there and even had the cheek to get Oliver Hughes to autograph it. I asked him to sign it ‘to eBay, love Oliver’ – sadly he didn’t, but he did sign it with a wry smile.
As for the blend – I think they regretted releasing it, as they felt it devalued the brand and confused the consumer – but hopefully any confusion will be cleared up on December 20 when the world will finally get a taste of what the land, sea and sky of West Kerry can produce.
Last year was my first time at Whiskey Live Dublin. I got in via a press pass, only to discover that a large part of the ticket price goes to Down Syndrome Ireland, thus prompting me to shamefacedly spend about 30 euro on raffle tickets for the charity. I didn’t win anything, but I had an amazing day. I wasn’t sure what the event was going to be like – I was going on my own, thought I might end up bored, and just felt the whole exercise might be an in-and-out-in-30-mins situation. But while I was one of the first in the door of the venue – then the round room in the Mansion House – I was also one of the last out, some four hours and 30 minutes later. I hadn’t even managed to make all of the stands, as I was having too much fun chatting to just about anyone who came into my line of vision.
The whiskey scene is quite small – domestically and globally – so when you are surrounded by like-minded souls it’s hard not to feel an instant sense of kinship. These are fellow geeks, facedown in a Glencairn, talking about phenolic content, grain vs malt, pot still vs everything else, and us vs the rest of the drinks world. How could I not go back? This year I dragged along my brother in law, and after a giant feed of buttermilk chicken in Crackbird, we sauntered into this year’s venue, the Printworks in Dublin Castle. The place was filling up already, so we got our glasses and hit the floor.
First up was Kilbeggan, where we had the eight year old single grain formerly known as Greenore – light, interesting, mellow – followed by the soon to be extinct 22 year old Connemara peated malt – rich, nutty, and an undervalued whiskey. We were talked through them by a man who knows them best – Master Distiller Noel Sweeney. We sipped our drinks, lamented the passing of Slieve Foy, and that was it – faces flushed, we were in the flow, moving from table to table, having the bants with the reps and sipping some pretty exceptional whiskeys. We also tried the wonderful Longueville House apple brandy, a first for me which is fairly shameful since they are only up the road from me (near Mallow, to be precise). According to the rep, they have been making it for 25 years now, and the original idea came from the fact they had acres of orchards, thus posing the problem of what to do with the apples. Like all inventive Irish people, they decided to make booze – very, very nice booze.
Right opposite their stand was another novel sensory experience – one from the island of Islay, where Irish monks first showed the Scots how to make whisky. Ardbeg is one of those classic Islay malts, heavy in peat smoke and a drink that I refused to believe was whisky when I first tasted it. I hated it then, I love it now: Briny, tarry, sweet, biscuity, spicy, utterly fucking crazy – Ardbeg is an otherworldly drink from an otherworldly land. To celebrate this, they had what looked like a device from Frankenstein’s lab – a contraption belching out plumes of eldritch fog, which was actually vaporized Ardbeg. It’s called the Haar after the soupy sea fog that occasionally envelopes the island.
So we took a drop of Ardbeg, filled the glass with fog, and then made up our own minds what to do next. I, unlike Bill Clinton, inhaled deeply, then took a sip. I can’t say it instantly changed the profile of the whisky, but it really made for an interesting experience – lungs full of gaseous booze, mouth sizzling with phenols, blood rushing to my face as the liquor hit. It was mental. And slightly menthol.
We also visited The Glenlivet stand, conveniently placed next to Pernod Ricard stablemates Irish Distillers. The Glenlivet is currently the number one Scotch in the world, which means they are under severe pressure to fulfill demand. Thus, like many of their counterparts, they are replacing their entry level 12-year-old single malt with a non-age statement (NAS) Founder’s Reserve. The NAS debate reared its head many times during the day. Is it a necessary move – or are drinks firms just diluting their classics and charging the same price? Is age just a number – or is it reflected in the quality of the whiskey? If stocks are under pressure, surely they should just up the price as supply diminishes, and let the consumer make the call on how much they love the product? Or just lower the price on the Founder’s Reserve. It is a polarizing issue in the whiskey scene – the age statement is an important signifier for the consumer, and to lose that is like having half the ingredients of your favorite dish suddenly obscured. My own feelings are this: As an ordinary Joe, I like the reassuring presence of an age statement, but it can also be misleading.
This was brought home to me at the Glendalough stand, where we sampled the seven year old and the 13 year old single malts. I found the seven to be extraordinary – citrus notes and sugar, astringent and smooth, it was a real eye opener to just how different Cooley stock can be. So older does not mean better. At the Spirit of Speyside I took part in the Whisky Shop Dufftown blind tasting, where I sampled seven whiskies from independent bottlers. The last one I tried was incredible – a molasses-coloured malt that had a depth and complexity I have almost never encountered. I found out after that it was a 2007 Adelphi bottling of a Glen Rothes – a seven year old malt from a remarkable cask. Youth does not equate to immaturity, and the reverse is also true – I’m forty and I still wear skinny jeans and listen to heavy metal.
When I was in Speyside I also met this chap, who works with bottlers and single malt legends Gordon And McPhail, who own the beautiful Benromach distillery. He gave us a taste of the organic offering from the distillery; the lengths they have to go to to get the organic certification are incredible, it’s not just a case of using organic barley and leaving it at that. The whole process has to be organic, which means nothing can be burnt, so the malt is steam dried, leaving the drink phenol free. Remarkable stuff – but I still prefer the standard 10.
Then we idled over to my east Cork neighbors, Irish Distillers, where Cork’s Irish Whiskey Society stalwart – and Midleton distillery worker – Eric Ryan was representing, along with Fox And Geese employee Dánú MacMahon, who guided us through a flock of Redbreasts – the cask-strength 12, the 15, and whiskey of the year, the 21. I love the cask-strength – it just takes you right back to that first time drinking whiskey, the fire and heat, gasping for air, eye-watering ‘oh Jesus’ effect, then giving way to that big mouthful of flavor that just rolls and rolls. I offered my condolences to Dánú – her fellow Jameson Graduate Programme participant Karen Cotter got to go to Cannes for a few days, whilst Dánú got to go to Whiskey Live and be bored to tears by me. Mind you, Karen also got to be bored to tears by me already, so maybe they should just make this part of the graduate programme – Module 1: Get Talked At By Boring Old Man In Skinny Jeans.
After that we sauntered over to Teeling, one of the buzz firms of the last few years. They come weighted with great expectations – their dad changed distilling in Ireland, and they are bringing an awareness of branding and marketing to an industry that has sometimes let those aspects slide. They also entered the market with what, to my mind, is one of the best blends in the world. We tried the single grain and the malt, both great but with the malt the definite winner. The Teeling rep was also one of the best we encountered – despite being with the firm only a short while, she was overflowing with enthusiasm and energy, something that can be hard to sustain over the long hours of a whiskey expo.
Another standout were the guys from Tamdhu – they were a joy, despite the fact that I opened by telling them they were representing the ugliest distillery in Scotland. Although I did qualify this by pointing out that it makes one of my favorite single malts. The reps rocketed us through three Tamdhus, four Glengoynes (the 15 is an absolute cracker) and refused to take no for an answer when I tried to decline an Edinburgh Gin. I’m happy they did – it was what I would call a great breakfast drink, infused with pink grapefruit, giving it a tart sweetness that served as a welcome palate cleanser after so many great whiskeys.
The whole event is organized by Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop, who has been celebrating all whiskeys of the world for more than a decade. The shop itself had a big presence on the day, with Mark McLoughlin being the one to talk us through the legendary Taiwanese whisky, Kavalan. Mark informed us that in Taiwan whisky only has to age for two years to earn the classification – but that two years in Taiwan is akin to many more in Ireland. The wet heat in Taiwan means the spirit ages at incredible speed without compromising on flavour. We tried the multi-award-winning Soloist – a super premium malt with a treacle-black color and supernova of flavours. Kavalan has been growing in stature for some years now, so hopefully the often conservative whiskey scene will embrace it as they should. Fun fact: It used to be stocked in Tesco in the UK, but has since almost completely disappeared from everywhere except specialist spirits shops like the Celtic Whiskey Shop.
Round the other side of the stand we tried whisky from Scotland’s ‘land of the lost’ – the region known as Campbeltown. Once the heart of whisky in Scotland, almost nothing remains except Springbank, the newish Glengyle and Glen Scotia. We tried the illusive Springbank and Hazelburn, both smoky and sweet, fruity and dry – a solid bridge between the medicinal malts of Islay and the sweet sherry influences of Speyside.
After those obscure drams, we decided to opt for one of the global stars – Jack Daniels. Remarkably, this was my first time drinking it. Like Kavalan, the heat in Kentucky contributes much to the flavor, but after all the big flavors, I found Gentleman Jack to be a little flat. Perhaps a rematch can be arranged on a date when I haven’t been pounding my tastebuds into dust.
We also managed to stop off at the Arran table. Arran were one of my big finds last year, and they were ably represented by the be-kilted Campbell, the man who showed Roman Abramovich around the distillery earlier this year. Campbell wasn’t there this year, but we still got to have a few drams and some chat about whether or not Roman was going to buy the distillery, as he is obviously quite the fan. We sampled their new release, The Bothy, and then as the clock was ticking, hit the BenRiach and GlenDronach table.
GlenDronach is one of my favorite whiskies – a real sherry bomb. It also comes with a great back story. Allardice, the man behind it, brought some of his whisky into Edinburgh to sell it, and failing to shift a single drop, drowned his sorrows with some ladies he met. The next day, said ladies and more of their acquaintances showed up at his lodgings, demanding to get more of his great whisky, and so a legend was born. After a sip of the Allardice release, honoring its founder, we doubled back to the Muldoon stand for a nip of their award winning Thin Gin and then finished up with their honeyed whiskey liqueur – the perfect dessert dram. And with that, we were gone – but not before I managed to get an autograph.
John Teeling just happened to be passing me, and I just happened to have a copy of Ivor Kenny’s book which he contributed to. In the book John reveals that he was approached to buy Irish Distillers in what was then known as a leveraged buy-out (LBO), and is now known as private equity. There is an excellent book called Barbarians At The Gate about the birth of the LBO which details the takeover of Nabisco – and the beginning of the obscene fees that have since consumed Wall Street and much of the financial world.
But John Teeling didn’t go for the IDL LBO – as he points out in the book (and as he pointed out to me again yesterday), the debt would have been massive, and he also feared the government of the day would come after him, as with any LBO there is massive job cuts. Effectively, borrowed money is used to buy a firm, chop it up, sell it off and repay the debt – with plenty left over for the organisers of the deal. Fun fact: Private equity was actually what Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman was engaged in. So not the most moral end of the takeover business. IDL would have lost up to 300 jobs in the LBO. But John Teeling didn’t go down that road – he left IDL alone, and they have gone on to become a world leader. So Irish whiskey owes him a lot, and not just for Cooley. Meeting him and shaking his hand was a pretty great end to a great day.
Apart from all the great whiskey, there were food pairings, masterclasses, the rugby on massive screens, and loads of free goodies from the various brands. The event is incredibly good value, and a great day out for both the hardcore enthusiast or the casual lush like me. There was plenty I didn’t include above, meeting Finn from Dick Mack’s – the Whiskey Pub Of The Year for the past two years – as well as being told that Jameson are definitely releasing the Whiskey Makers trilogy (something I have since heard is definitely not the case), insider gossip, details of sort-of friendly rivalries, new releases and all the other industry stuff that other writers (ie, Dave Havelin of the fantastic LiquidIrish.com) cover much better than I. My only regret is that I didn’t make half the stands – but sher there’s always next year.
You just can’t go wrong with Powers. It is my drink of choice on the rare occasion that I actually get out for the night. It’s easily found in most pubs, is reasonably priced, and – to my palate – packs a bigger punch than it’s more popular sibling, Jameson. I always think of Indian food when I see how the average consumer views whiskey – most people think Indian food is basically varying degrees of ‘curry’. Similarly, many people think all whiskey is basically just Jameson, with minor variations. It’s only once you start to explore either that you realise a whole world, previously hidden to you, was there all along.
Jameson, like many blends, is the tikka masala or korma of the whiskey world – the most common introduction to the field, by virtue of its mellow smoothness and accessibility. Powers is probably the dopiaza of the field – with more pot still whiskey, it carries a little more spice and an extra dimension than the world’s most popular Irish whiskey. Powers is a great next step into the whiskey world, but while I love it’s oldschool styling, the younglings might be put off by something that exhibits some of the visual keys of a tube of Euthymol. So pappa’s got a brand new bag:
Not just a slick new label, but some lovely glasswork, as befitting the elder statesperson of Irish distilling.
Here are the official details:
An Irish Icon Awakes
Introducing the new look Powers Gold Label and Powers Three Swallow Release
With over 200 years of heritage distilled into each bottle, the new look Powers Gold Label is as definitive now as it always was – a pot still style whiskey of superior quality and undisputed heritage since 1791.
While the aesthetic has changed, everything that makes Powers Gold Label the quintessential Irish whiskey has stayed exactly the same. True to the Pot Still style of the original distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin, Powers Gold Label is still triple distilled and matured in specially selected oak casks bursting with the same wonderfully complex and spicy flavor.
Powers reputation for excellence and innovation placed them at the forefront of Irish whiskey. In 1866, John Power and Son began bottling their own whiskey, which was unheard of before in Ireland, as it was usually sold by the cask. A gold label was entrusted on the bottle to signify premium quality and guarantee it had come directly from the John’s Lane Distillery, earning its name Powers Gold Label by loyal customers
The new look Powers Gold Label bottle will be officially unveiled at an exclusive event in Dublin in a specially created pop-up bar on Mercer Street, Dublin 2 on October 6th. The event will also give guests an exclusive preview and tasting of a brand new Powers Single Pot Still Whiskey expression, Powers Three Swallow Release ahead of its official launch later in the year.
As it enters the next phase in its iconic 224 year history, Powers Three Swallow Release, distilled and aged to perfection, is the 21st century embodiment of the traditional pure pot still whiskey style that has made Powers famous the world over.
Powers Gold Label is available in all leading on and off trade outlets, RRP €29.49
They have also brought on board this chap:
The new look carries a lot of the feel of the (incredible) John’s Lane Release:
It’s interesting to see Irish Distillers doing things like this – there are going to be a lot of competitors in the market over the next decade, so they are really donning the warpaint. Modernising a classic is a brave move, but shows they are confident that they will reach new consumers rather than alienating an older generation who may not initially recognise their beloved brand of yore. It also builds a strong visual link between the various members of the Powers family – be it entry-point blend, or luxuriant single pot still.
Speaking of old people: I recently got some wonderful agitprop in the post:
Yes, I should have dusted the bottle before I took the photos, but you get the idea – a rock-solid Irish classic has got a well-deserved makeover. Also, this confirms that I am officially in the pocket of Big Whiskey and cannot be trusted. Vote IDL! Impeach Cooley! Etc!
There are things that I miss about being in a newsroom. The flow of insider information, the unprintable story behind the story, the kernels of truth you occasionally stumble across. It is like an addiction – once gone from it, you feel the withdrawal, you realise that you are now on the outside. But that isn’t necessarily the worst place to be, and definitely not in today’s media, where low sales are driving a race to the bottom, with everyone now chasing MailOnline and Buzzfeed’s business models of listicles, flesh, rage-bait and endless repetition.
However, one of the best aspects of journalism is the access it gives you; it places you in a position of extreme privilege – you get into places you shouldn’t, get offered things you don’t need, and generally can live a larger life than your wages would suggest. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Two years ago I was sent to an event in my hometown distillery called The Housewarming. It was being held to celebrate the massive expansion of the local distillery, but beyond that I didn’t know much else. I’m not sure what I expected, but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of it. Walking through the arch into the main courtyard behind the old distillery was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly blooms into Technicolor, or the first time Aldous Huxley dropped acid; I was, like Adam, seeing all of creation for the first time. After The Housewarming, I was hooked, and have been writing about – and loving – whiskey ever since. And so it was that I was one of only a few journalists to be invited to both the launch of the new micro distillery and celebration of Jameson’s rocketing sales – five million cases plus in 12 months.
The events in the distillery are pretty special – almost everything they do is delivered in epic widescreen, and this was no different. The first part of the evening was the launch of the microdsitillery, which has seen distilling return to the old distillery site for the first time in 40 years. In fact, this year marked a triple celebration for IDL – parent firm Pernod Ricard turned 40, the new Midleton distillery turned 40, and Master Distiller Brian Nation also hit the big four-O (I also turned 40 in August, but since I was on the dole, celebrations were muted).
Over the past couple of years, an old storehouse was renovated and turned into a small scale distillery – but one which was still larger than many of the new independent distilleries being set up around the country in the past 24 months.
After a drinks reception in the courtyard, we were ushered in to hear IDL CEO Anna Malmhake, Tánaiste Joan Burton and ‘micro-distiller’ (note: not an actual term) Karen Cotter speak about the new venture. Anna acted as MC, and Karen spoke first, giving a speech about her path to this point, about the distillery, her mentors and what the future holds. Given her young age – just 24 – it was remarkable to hear her speak with such clarity and self-confidence. It reinforced my view that she will be a very bright star in Irish whiskey.
Then it was the Tánaiste’s turn. Deputy Burton spoke about how her ancestors were coopers, having grown up near Bow Street distillery, and also about how important it is to have gender balance in the workplace – be it at the cabinet table, or in the distilling world. Then it was over to the stills to switch them on, one by one, at which point they lit up in sequence.
Here is some low-grade audio of part of Karen Cotter and Joan Burton’s speeches:
Whilst there I chatted to local politicians Deputy Sandra McLellan of SF, David Stanton of FG and fellow journalist Tomás Clancy of the SBP. It was great to finally meet Tomás, as we both used to be part of the same media group, and also because he is a great ambassador for whiskey. I had seen him speak at Ballymaloe LitFest with Dave Broom and he was great, really knowledgeable without beating you over the head with it. Top guy, and the SBP is a great paper.
I also chatted to Richard Forsyth of the legendary pot still makers Forsyths – the Rolls Royce of post still makers. I had met him at the Spirit Of Speyside gala in May so it was nice to meet him on my home turf. Speyside is incredible – if you ever get a chance to visit there during the whisky festival, do so. You won’t regret it. The festival is one of the rare occasions when you can get a tour of the massive plant in Rothes. As a Scottish engineering firm their main business is oil and gas – which occupies about 300 of their staff, while the distilling operation has 60 or so working in it. There is an impressive drone flyover of the facility to give you an idea of what they do.
During the Spirit of Speyside festival the town also hosts a tattie bogle contest – local businesses create scarecrows and hang them off buildings or in windows. It is goddam terrifying, like something from Tales Of The Unexpected or The League Of Gentlemen.
Also there was Bernard Walsh, head of the IWA and one of the ‘real deal’ distillers in Ireland at the moment. He is the man behind Writer’s Tears, to my mind one of the stand-out Irish whiskeys, not just for its fresh aesthetic and great name, but just because it is a great drink. Bernard’s new pot stills arrived from Rothes last week, so it’s an exciting time for him, the culmination of many years of hard work.
Then it was off to the buses to be ferried down to Warehouse 11, a functioning storage facility that they had transformed into an incredible venue for the evening. About 350 guests filed in, greeted with Jameson whiskey sours, and then on a massive screen we were shown DJ Kormac talking about a commission he was given to create a track from the sounds of the distillery. He talked about his methods as they cut in footage from barley fields, and then he and singer Vivienne Long took to the stage to unveil their track. No wonder he is so skinny with all the frenetic work he does behind his electronics.
Then the screen lifted and we were in the venue proper, with names and tables assigned on a screen. Somehow I managed to locate mine, right up the front near the stage, perfect if i got carried away and wanted to start a moshpit or possibly stage dive onto some marketing people. The meal itself was spectacular, these massive outside events mean you need to set up mobile kitchens in the middle of nowhere and bus in an army of wait staff and chefs. Sometimes this can result in sub standard food, but not in this case; every part of the meal was incredible, really interesting food, beautiful, inspired presentation, and wait staff who were incredibly patient with my increasingly terrible banter: ‘Still or sparkling water sir?’ ‘Sparkling – LIKE MESELF’. I wonder how many times that poor person had to hear that jape in a single night. I was sat next to a member of the Irish Whiskey Association, which much like its Scottish counterpart is mainly involved in protection of intellectual copyright and maintaining the integrity of the Irish Whiskey brand. They make sure that you don’t end up with some low grade hooch from outside the country being passed off as ‘ye olde Oirish whiskey’ as it will devalue the entire category.
Also sat next to me was the Jameson Ambassador to Tokyo, a 23 year old Arts graduate from Wicklow, who possessed the rare (Irish) skill of being able to speak fluent Japanese. He spoke about his work, his projected aims and the brand’s target demographics. It was an amazing insight into a job that seems like it might be akin to being Duffman from The Simpsons, but is actually a lot more sophisticated, nuanced and involves a lot less booze than you would think. He has his work cut out for him – in a fast-paced and somewhat alien cultural landscape (one with a fantastic indigenous whisky scene), trying to attach yourself to the zeitgeist will be akin to catching a bullet between your teeth. But it will still be some incredible adventure for a young man.
Throughout the event there was incredible live music on stage – Lisa Hannigan, an orchestra playing popular classics (and grunge), and a harpist who would give Tony Iommi a run for his money.
After dinner we were treated to three new whiskeys from the distillery, each curated by a master – Master Cooper Ger Buckley’s the Cooper’s Croze, Master Distiller Brian Nation’s Distiller’s Safe and Master Blender Billy Leighton’s Blender’s Dog, three exclusive blends named after the respective tools of the masters’ trades.
We were asked to sample them, discuss and compare, which we duly did. Then the massive screens flared into life, and a short film about the trio began, showing them getting ready in their various domains, which then cut to a live feed of them walking into through the massive doors of Warehouse 11, all conducted to the strains of Arcade Fire. We toasted them, had a dram, and Hermitage Green took the stage, playing into the night.
CEO of Pernod Ricard, Alex Ricard, also spoke at the event. Last year he talked about the definition of craft and what it means. It has become increasingly obvious that craft, artisan and small batch are products of marketing teams and have lost much of their meaning. However, the consumer is getting canny – Templeton Rye was hit with a massive class action lawsuit over claims their whiskey was small batch, when actually it was sourced from a large-scale production facility. So when Midleton created a micro-distillery, they made sure to avoid the computer terminal controls you see in larger facilities, and instead opted for manual controls. The same goes for Ballindalloch in Speyside – they deliberately went for full manual controls to keep a down-home feel to their single estate distillery.
Alex Ricard posed the question – ‘what is craft?’ Is it the centuries that Irish people have been making whiskey, is it the incredibly history of the drink on this island, and at what point does a facility stop being ‘craft’? Is it a question of size and scale, is it to do with technology? Is there less craft in a large plant than in a garage-based operation? How is that so? Can a multi-national own a craft distillery – is it a question of economics? Most modern food and drink operations operate like pharma plants – is there a chilling effect in this system? Would you enjoy your drink more if you thought some chap made it in his shed? Or is it simply a question of aura, of exclusivity, of rareness? As a species we tend to hate the modern age, and yearn for some pre-industrial idyll that never existed; a simpler time when the noble farmer toiled the land before going home to read Chaucer by candlelight and die of natural causes at 40. We are bemused by the trainspotters and their passion for engineering – but not by people who go to art galleries. Modern engineering is a beautiful thing – be it the micro distillery or the bigger sibling that produces much of the world supply of Irish whiskey.
Mr Ricard also spoke about how everyone present on the night had a personal connection to Jameson – they have their pet names for it, their favourite way to drink it, their stories about how they started getting into whiskey. The jaded cynic in me might raise my eyes, but in a way he was right. Like Jameson, I am from Dublin originally, but spent the last 40 years in east Cork. My mother was a 19 year old from Sherriff Street in the north inner city, who grew up close to the old premises of Haig And Haig, and a few doors down from St Laurence O’Toole Church, supposedly built over old whiskey stores, which has led to the crypts still carrying a lingering hint of the angel’s share. She put me up for adoption, and after six weeks I was brought home by my mum and dad. After a brief stint in Kerry, we moved to Midleton, where my dad worked in the bank that lies just downriver from the distillery.
I grew up in a house overlooking the distillery, halfway between there and the new maturation sites in Dungourney. As a kid I swam and fished in the same river that they make all those incredible whiskeys from, and later I went to school just over the wall from the distillery in Midleton College. If you ever visit the Garden Stillhouse, see if you can find the sinkhole nearby, which leads to the underground stream from which the distillery takes some of its water. The stream travels under the wall and into the school grounds, and over the years pupils used to dare each other to travel through the pitch black cave network and up into the distillery – despite the fact that for some of the 50 yards or so you would be chest-deep in ice-cold water. My parents sent me to this expensive, private school – and they worked hard to pay for it. My dad loved whiskey – the first article I wrote for the Irish Examiner was about The Housewarming, but also about my dad, and in it I told this story: When I was about 10, my mother had a massive brain haemorrhage. She was given 24 hours to live. My dad went to the hospital chapel and made a deal with God – he would give up his beloved whiskey if mum pulled through. She duly did, and he hasn’t touched a drop since. She passed away nine years ago now, but he still won’t drink it as he says ‘a deal is a deal’.
It sounds like bunkum, but I like this story because it tells you the kind of guy my dad is. Part of my love of whiskey comes from him, and from suddenly having that strange epiphany when you realise that your dad is a great guy. He grew up in an Ireland that has thankfully almost completely disappeared – his dad used to come home, eat dinner, then go to the pub. His father once told him about the hilarity among his friends when they saw a friend of their’s pushing a buggy. Fathers back then earned the money and that was about it. The kids were women’s work. But my dad was always there for me, as I crashed headlong through life. Despite the fact that I often made terrible choices, he supported me no matter what. Whiskey to me is a symbol of all that is great about him – of being a good father, a good husband, a good human being. It represents the slow joy of growing old, of maturity. It’s about the simple pleasure of a mind-unclenching, blood-warming drink whilst surrounded by your family as they bicker about X Factor or try to figure out what the hell was going on in Age Of Ultron. It’s a celebration of making peace with this world. I have enjoyed constant privilege – from the luck of being a journalist to the childhood I had. I went down Sherriff Street for the first time this summer to see the old family home, to see where at least part of me is from. The area is a ghetto, fenced in by the ugly opulence of the IFSC on one side and, on the other, a canal, which once brought so much wealth and industry to the area, now filled with rubbish. While we were down there a child shot at the car with a BB gun. We didn’t stick around for long. It was a sobering reminder of how lucky I am, in all aspects of my life. I have tasted amazing whiskeys, seen amazing things and met amazing people over the last few years, and the event in Midleton last month was a reminder of all my good fortune – of growing up in the home of Irish whiskey, in a house filled with love and unopened bottles of Jameson, because, as my dad says, a deal is a deal.
I interviewed this remarkable young woman last week and it went into print today, but due to space restraints they had to cut it in half. So here it is in full:
The summer of 1975 wasn’t a particularly remarkable one. The somnambulist prog of 10CC’s I’m Not In Love topped the Irish charts, there were lightning storms across the country and in the Munster Final between Cork and Kerry, sparks flew between Páidí O Sé and Dinny Allen. And in an east Cork town, one of the longest surviving distilleries in Ireland stopped producing whiskey. The stills fell silent in Midleton on a Friday afternoon, after 150 years of distilling on the site, and the (largely male) workforce trudged through the gates for the last time. Then, on the following Monday morning, they all showed up for work in the brand new, state of the art distillery to the rear of the old site, and the firm has never looked back since.
The old distillery was turned into one of southern Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, and the new plant has been the home of Irish whiskey for the last four decades.
But distilling is coming back to the old Midleton distillery, and this time it is not being overseen by the curmudgeonly, cloth-capped chaps of yore, but by a 24-year-old engineering graduate named Karen Cotter. If she has a sense of her importance in the male-dominated history of distilling, she doesn’t show it.
For centuries, the entire whiskey industry has been almost exclusively male – from the barley famers, to the distillers, to the consumers, it was a man’s drink in a man’s world. But this young north Corkwman’s role as the head distiller of the new micro distillery in Midleton is a sign of changing times. She became part of Irish Distillers Limited through their graduate programme, which enables science grads to get a taste for the life of the distiller.
And while chemical engineering might not be a course you would associate with edibles, food and drink play a bigger part than you would think: “Across chemical engineering there would be three mains facets – energy, pharma, and food and drink. I had steered myself away from the biopharma unit because I thought I loved chemistry and then I got to college and realized I didn’t, so when the placement with IDL came up I put my name forward for it.”
But this is no ordinary course – the modern distiller needs to be a scientist and a masterful communicator too – so the application process includes submitting a video. This is Karen’s one:
This blend of an enthusiasm for science and communication skills may explain why seven of the last eight graduates from the programme have been female: “There were plenty of guys at the interview days, but it is a tough interview process – first you have to make a video as to why you should be chosen and after that there is two round of interviews, so I don’t know if it is that girls are more open to doing the video in the first place, and then there is presentations and things like that involved in the process.
“It’s tough – but you can see their thought processes behind it, the job description states that they want someone who is witty, charismatic – they are looking for a personality as well as the education behind it, because you could end up with a role like this where you need to be able to communicate effectively. That’s not to suggest that that is why guys haven’t got through, but the initial idea could put a lot of men off applying.”
But women have another advantage when it comes to distilling: Research released last year by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil revealed why women perform better in scent tests – they have more cells in the part of the brain that controls the ability to smell. It’s believed that this olfactory superpower helps mothers bond with their babies, and also helps them select a mate. It just happens that they are also naturally gifted when it comes to discerning aromas in whiskey. But developing a nose for this spirit, which has one of the most complex flavor profiles in the world, can often pose a challenge for newcomers.
“I’m still working on it; for whiskey it is a very specific set of aromas that you are working with, I’m on the distillery tasting panel – every charge that is bunged, every tanker that goes out, it is nosed by at least two if not three people, and it can’t be released from the site until that has happened, until it has been compared against the standard to see if it is perfect. So that is how I am learning to get into the scents more, where I am now at the stage where I can tell if there is a difference with something, but I’m still working on putting words to the senses.
“Also, if you’re nosing whiskey, it is very subjective, it depends what you’ve been exposed to; fruity notes are one of the things that are synonymous with whiskey, but I don’t like fruit that much, but because I can smell fruit I can still get it, but there are other people who would be more adventurous with their food and they would get different aromas.”
Of course, having Midleton’s Master Distiller Brian Nation to mentor you also helps: “Brian has been the only boss I have ever had, because of the placement and then being taken on under the programme.
“Brian is terrific, he really is. Considering he came from the same background I did, chemical engineering, he knows what areas I would be stronger in and in what areas I might need a little help, and his vast experience through working here over the years.
“He knows everything from the grain intake, to the cask filling, he has an incredible overview – and because of that he will be so helpful with the micro distillery, and even more so when it grows to have the micro brewery as well – he has the full spectrum of experience.
“And there is also Dave Quinn, he is also involved, all those years of experience – they know everything there is to know about distilling.”
The microbrewery means that the wort, a weak beer which is then distilled to make the spirit, can be adjusted via different brewing techniques or even different grains.
But as for recipes, they already have a few up their sleeve: “We are lucky as our archivist Carol Quinn came across a notebook recently and it was John Jameson’s son’s notebook from 1826s, and it details a lot of the recipes they were trying at the time, and the different ratios of the grains, what grains they used, a lot of different parameters that they would have adjusted, trying to find a new blend, so we will be trying some of those recipes to see what we will come out with, or if we can replicated something that they would have made back in the day.
“We obviously won’t know if it exactly the same, and it is a long waiting period (three years ageing minimum) so it’s trial and error now and then we won’t know for a very long time. But as it is such a small batch they will age it for much longer than three years.
“And if it is a success it could be replicated in the main distillery on a larger scale.”
A lost notebook suddenly discovered just in time for a micro-distillery launch? Sounds like marketing bumpf, but Karen swears it is not: “I didn’t believe it either, but our archivist showed it to me, and it is in very good condition despite its age, because the paper back then was made from linen so it lasted much better than our paper today. They obviously don’t use the metric system, so it is hard to differentiate what they are saying, so Brian and I spent a bit of time going through it trying to figure it out. “
And as for Karen’s family, they are proud as (whiskey-based) punch: “They were delighted; dad’s always had an interest in whiskey, and then more as Jameson upped their marketing a few years before I got my placement he had gotten a bit more into it, so he was absolutely delighted.
“Since then I introduced him to more, each year I give him a new bottle, the first it was Black Barrel, then last year it was Jameson Gold Reserve, so I will probably cap it fairly soon as I can’t be spending that much money!
“But they are delighted – it is something so different and they can actually tell their friends what I do – it’s not like an obscure office job, they know exactly what my job entails because I can bring them here and show them. They are very proud – it’s not exactly what they expected I would be doing after college though!”
As for whether they know how important her place in history is – as the first Irish woman in charge of a distillery – they are starting to realize their daughter is a rather big deal: “I don’t think so I haven’t really said much about that, but I think when I was describing the launch they started to wonder ‘what is she at down here at all, I thought she was an engineer, why is she doing interviews and why is she picking out an outfit.’ “
After the gala launch yesterday, attended by the Tánaiste Joan Burton, there will be little doubt that this is a pivotal moment for Karen and her family – and for Irish whiskey itself.