All that glitters

Do you remember Dingle Gold? It was a sourced blend, and it wasn’t very good, even by the humdrum standards of the most unchallenging blends. Of course, you wouldn’t expect too much given how it crashed into existence. 

The year was 2010 and the Porterhouse Group were going to be the only Irish firm at the Shanghai World Expo. Known as the ‘economic olympics’ the expo would be their springboard into the Asian market – so they invested €1.35 million and 18 months of hard into securing a space for their pop-up pub, which would showcase their craft beers to some 70 million visitors during the expo’s six-month duration. But it wasn’t just going to be about craft beer. Oliver Hughes – the visionary founder of the Porterhouse who died suddenly in 2016 – was already planning a distillery here in Ireland. To show just how confusing whiskey is to the average person, here’s this from an Irish Times piece on the Expo in 2010

Porterhouse recently started distilling its own whisky at a still in Dingle [they actually hadn’t started distilling until 2012], the first new one in 220 years. That whiskey won’t be ready in time for Expo, but the group has commissioned a range of 8-year-old and 12-year-old whiskeys from Cooley especially for the Expo.

I sincerely doubt the blend components in Dingle Gold were that old, as it was a fiery number. 

Oliver Hughes’s son Elliott, now MD of the Porterhouse Group, told me how it came into being when I interviewed him and then Dingle Master Distiller Peter Mosley in 2017: “We were doing a bar out in Shanghai at the time for the World Expo. So we built a proper full scale bar over there and this was supposed to be the best thing ever and the turnover was meant to be 400 million and all this kind of nonsense, and we had this whiskey built for over there and it did not go very well. It’s one of those non-mentioned things. It [the expo] wasn’t nearly as busy as they said it would be and the Chinese don’t drink as much beer as we anticipated. It was managed poorly.”

Mosley continued: “I don’t think the Chinese had as much disposable income as we thought.  So the Dingle Gold was never intended to sell in Ireland. I just got a phonecall from Oliver saying ‘there’s a load of whiskey on the quays, can you organise it to go somewhere?’ and it sat in storage for months before we did anything about shipping it. We weren’t ready for it, we didn’t have any sale structure or staff, I think Mary [Ferriter, Dingle Distillery manager] here sold most of it.” 

Elliot: “And we sold lots of it through our own bars in Irish coffees. But in hindsight if we were to do it again i think we certainly wouldn’t. I think we were new to the market, we made a decision and it probably wasn’t the right decision, but at that time nobody was doing anything in Irish whiskey. Oliver was all about the ideas, Liam Lahart [Oliver’s cousin and co-founder] would then have to find out how we would pay for it.”

Mosley: “And I would have to figure out how we were going to do it.”

Elliot: “So a different way of operating completely.”

Mosley: “So Elliott is the ideas guy now.”

He certainly is: Since that interview three years ago, Dingle’s head distiller Michael Walsh moved to Boann Distillery as master distiller, and Dingle managed something of a coup by luring Graham Coull away from Glen Moray in beautiful Speyside to the beautiful arse end of Ireland. Obviously whiskey is a long game, so it will be some time until we get to sample Coull’s creations, but there are positive noises:

Now comes their fifth batch of single malt, and an expanded reach – one of the primary complaints about Dingle is how hard it can be to come by their bottles; little wonder given that they only fill four casks a day. I’ll let the press release take it from here: 

The Batch 5 will make history as the biggest release to date, a total of 36,500 bottles. Five hundred of those will  be bottled at cask strength (59.3% abv) as a tribute to the 500 Founding Fathers (and mothers), the  

people who backed the distillery at its foundation by each investing in a cask of the first spirit to  come from Dingle’s stills. 

The Batch 5 launch represents a considerable increase in volume, meaning that on this occasion  9,000 bottles can go to the United States, the remaining 27,500 being destined for Ireland, the rest  of Europe, Asia and Australasia. 

For Master Distiller Graham Coull, who joined Dingle in October 2019, this is his second batch  release. He believes that the use of Madeira casks in this whiskey adds a subtle complexity. 

“The Madeira influence adds a great depth of flavour and a kind of backbone to this remarkable  whiskey while not masking the subtle spice from the Bourbon casks or sweet tone from the Pedro  Ximenez ones”, he says.

In Ireland, the Batch 5 Single Malt will retail at €70; the Batch 5 Cask Strength at €150, will be  available exclusively online from irishmalts.ie, and rationed to one bottle per customer. 

Full disclosure – while I love what Dingle represents as the first green shoot in a national resurgence of whiskey distilling, I haven’t been wild about the few samples I had. I always thought there was just too much fire and heat in them. I can’t blame it all on youth either – the three to four year old Great Northern whiskeys that I have tried are excellent and show that youth can be smooth and rich. But this Dingle is a decent dram at what is not an outlandish price. A lot of toffee sweetness on the nose, custard on the palate and a decent length of finish, with pleasant astringency. A solid, smashable dram – would be interesting to try the CS and see where it takes you. 

Looking back over the Dingle story, you can see how things change – in their prospectus they outlined a range of drinks, many of which never materialised. I think that was part of the charm – the sense of chaos that comes with something smashing barriers and making history. They did what they could to survive.

I still have my bottle of Dingle Gold, signed by Oliver, and I treasure it. It’s not worth anything, but its power is symbolic. Dingle Gold wasn’t amazing, but it was the start of something that was and is.

Start to Finnish

A curious thing about the passage of time is how it is slower in our minds than it is in reality. Looking forward to anything feels like forever, while looking back it all seems like yesterday. In 2014 I was stumbling into an obsession with whiskey when I came across an Irish name in a feature on a distillery in Helsinki. I got in touch with the person – Seamus Holohan – and interviewed him for the Evening Echo, because if it has even the vaguest connection to Cork, it has got to go in the Echo. He was at the start of his business journey with two old friends, talking about bringing rye whisky to the Finnish market. Thinking to myself, well, four years is a long-ass time to stay in touch for updates, I put the Helsinki Distillery from my mind and completely forgot about Seamus and his dreams until earlier this year when I saw a tweet about new travel retail whisky from Finland – Seamus’s distillery had a whisky. Naturally, being completely shameless, I asked for a sample to review, and Seamus, being a genial chap, sent me an entire bottle, and filled me in on what had been happening for the Helsinki Distillery since we last spoke.

“The last four years have been spent building the factory, the storage spaces, raising capital, starting sales on several fronts, hiring, launching products to help fund the whiskey production, and realising that making products is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the spirits business – it’s all about the brand.

“I can thorough recommend starting a distillery to anybody who wishes to call themselves a true entrepreneur and work the proverbial 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. At the same time we opened the visitor centre (another huge project), won many international awards with our Spirits, and by accident have created a new Premium Long Drink category.”

Long drinks like the Tom Collins are well known around the world, but in Finland the long drink is a distinct category all on its own. Dating back to the summer Olympics in 1952, the Finns wanted to be the perfect hosts and so they came up with the Finnish Long Drink, a beverage usually concocted from a mix of gin and grapefruit soda. It was a hit, and is still so popular to this day that you can often get it on draught.

Finland has remarkably progressive taxation policies, low crime rates and high employment. But starting a business in a utopia is just as hard as starting one anywhere else, as Seamus discovered.

“This has been the most difficult start-up I have been involved with but also the most interesting. Now the company is moving to the next stage and I¹m spending more time with Excel and the joys of budgeting, sales plans and the like. Nobody has asked me for over two years if the company will still be in existence in five years and we have 14 people employed between the distillery and visitor centre. Is survival the new success?”

As for the rye, it has a beautiful look, one that was very consciously Nordic: “The idea was to have a Nordic whiskey without copying a Scottish or Irish whiskey, for example. Also we have the ambition to not only distill the Nordic ingredients (hence the local crop here of rye) but also to try to use the Nordic simplicity in the design of the label and speak something of the culture and traditions of the Nordics. The bottle should convey premium, include only the amount of information required but all that whiskey enthusiasts want, give the feel of small batch, and made with care. The label is designed by Aleksi Ahjopalo (https://www.ahjopalo.com/) and the box comes from Starcke (http://www.starcke.fi/en/home/).”

While rye may have bought them locavore cool, it is also a thriving category – American rye whiskey production increased by 778% between 2009 and 2016, equaling a 900% rise in revenue, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. So the Helsinki Distillery is straddling two key trends – interesting grains, and whisky from non-traditional countries. But success will all hinge on the liquid.

And what of this liquid – there have been four releases from the distillery, two 100% rye malt and two mixed mash whiskeys. I was gifted release number two, the official details of which are as follows:

Helsinki Whiskey 100% Rye Malt Release #2 is blended from two casks. Master Distiller Mikko Mykkänen has chosen the casks. They are small, 28 litre casks made from new French oak. The oak used in making these casks comes from the regions of Allier and Limousin in France. They give the whiskey a beautiful golden colour and add balanced notes of vanilla, honey and herbal spiciness. The whiskey has been matured for a minimum of three years.

Nose: Vanilla and caramel from the oak cask, malted rye and freshly baked rye loaf from the distillate. Honey and dark chocolate.

Flavor: Rich and deep mouthfeel. Aroma has notes of vanilla, dried apricots, toffee, licorice, herbs, even a hint of dark roasted coffee. A drop of water will bring out the tannins of the cask and reduce the sweetness.

Aftertaste: Long, it lingers on the insides of the cheeks. Spiciness of rye whiskey, especially white pepper, abundantly evident. Alcohol content is 47,5 %, which brings out the whiskey’s aromas. Few drops of water can be added to the whiskey if so desired.

As always, my policy here is that water is for plants – give it to me as strong as possible and don’t spare the burn. Anyway:

On the nose – that dusty, musty scent you get when you walk into a barn filled with grain. I’m not used to rye so this is quite the departure – there is none of that coffee toffee  I get from whiskey. Digestive biscuit, warm milk and Weetabix, and a real agrarian vibe – reminds me of the waft of brewing you sometimes get from Midleton distillery. On the palate this is feisty, a lot of eye-watering white heat. Maybe that drop of water is required after all. Nah, fuck it. The heat makes way for a strong-yet-soft perfume note – it reminds me of brandy, soft fruit making way for festive spices. It’s hard to know with releases like this whether they are meant to be a taste of some potentially wonderful future, or just an economic necessity – whiskey is such a long game that few can afford to sit and wait a decade for their entry-level ten year old. I love the financial madness of setting up a whiskey distillery – all that risk for one crazy dream. It feels dickish to then insult the initial outputs from any new distiller – I have kids, and I know you don’t expect much from a three year old. They have big personalities, and a lot of rough edges, but give them another seven years and they are a different species. So this is bold, and a little loud, but the potential is there, and six years from now doesn’t seem that far away anymore.

Seasonal affective disorder

The Dungourney river on its slow approach to Midleton.

As part of the Midleton food festival each September, there is a tasting in the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town. It’s usually a ridiculously cheap five or ten euro for four premium whiskeys – but the event used to be completely free. However, one year at the end of the tasting, a little old lady went around and poured all the leftover drams into a little plastic bottle. When confronted and asked why, she said ‘it’s for the Christmas cake’. After that, they started to charge. But it’s hard to argue with the lady’s common sense approach to all that leftover whiskey. To many, it is the Christmas drink – we use it to flavour the cake, torch the pudding, liven up our coffee or just warm the blood during the darkest season in Northern Europe. But what do whiskey drinkers in warmer climes drink? Well, one option is to have something from the ready-to-drink (or RTD) category; Jameson comes in a variety of pre-mixed variations in Australia, including Cloudy Apple, Raw Cola and this:

Because when you’re drinking in a desert, you need a little more than 35cl of hard liquor to quench your thirst. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Jameson would launch a whiskey in South Africa before anywhere else; but that’s exactly what they did with what we call Black Barrel, then known as Jameson Select Reserve.

Still known by that name in one of the big emerging markets for whiskey, Kenya, the spirit itself is a bit of an oddity, being a blend of pot still and mixed-mash barley spirit from a column still. You can read the full breakdown here on Liquid Irish. The Black Barrel tag came from the fact the barrels are double charred. The result is a sweet vanilla dram reminiscent, to my mind, of the more American styles. When I try to badger my wife into drinking whiskey, it is this I opt for – ‘it’s kinda like Jack Daniels’ I pitch. ‘Except it isn’t and it’s is a lot nicer’, I think to myself.

While the African market is a growing one for IDL, so too are almost all others – the distillery in Midleton may be capable of creating a vast array and amount of whiskey, but they need more space to grow. To this end, they recently bought a farm that lay adjacent to the site. It went to public auction, the previous owner having passed away. There is a full write-up on the Independent, which makes for interesting reading. Initially being sold in lots, IDL and one other bidder wanted the lot – and IDL, being a very large firm )with a substantial parent firm in the form of Pernod Ricard) won the day.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

What is interesting is how community focused IDL they are; beyond being the best employer in the area in terms of salaries, conditions and general vibe, they also have engaged with some of the bidders to make deals on the smaller lots they don’t need – one of those being the GAA club, which is currently located at the other end of the town. Access there is a nightmare, whereas the land IDL have just bought has planning for a new access road – which would also take their deliveries out of the town itself.

When I heard the distillery bought a farm, I immediately assumed they were going to use it for grain for the microdistillery, or just as a lovely prop for the whiskey academy, but it seems more likely they will use it to expand their operations – and possibly also to create flood defences, as earlier this year there was extensive flooding upriver from their site. I’ve written about this before, and made the point that some people locally laid the blame on the distillery, despite it being there for four decades with no flooding. You can see from this video that some of the warehouses were affected, but also that the floods spread miles back along the river.

In fact, the area that flooded is the part of the site that is zoned for industry, so I’d imagine IDL have plans for serious flood defences before they start any new building work.

All of this tells you two things – first, IDL are important to the community here. For a small town like Midleton, this kind of employment forms its economic backbone. Without the distillery, we could have gone the way of Youghal – stripped of large businesses over the past 30 years, currently Youghal’s largest employer is the State-run St Raphael’s care home. 

IDL also support various community projects here, including the recently developed youth centre, something worth considering next time you hear someone droning on about the demon drink and how it is ruining society. 

The second piece of information to be gleaned from the farm purchase is that IDL know that they are going to have a lot of competition in the next ten years, so now is the time to flex those sizeable muscles and expand lines as well as the plant itself. I was in Scotland when I first heard about the new Green Spot expression, earwigging on a conversation between Sir Colin Hampden White of the ultra-lux, invite-only Whisky Quarterly magazine and Mark Gillespie of the ever-popular WhiskyCast, who were both off to the launch event the following week. The single pot still whiskey is finished in wine casks from Château Léoville-Barton, a merging of Irish and French cultures that appealed to me, as it was French monks from the Burgundy region who built the monastic settlement that later became the town of Midleton (update – this is massively incorrect; thanks again, Wikipedia. See comment from local historian Tony Harpur below). 

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

But there is another Irish connection here: Thomas Barton, of Barton & Guestier, left Ireland to find his fortune in Bordeaux in 1724, starting a shipping company there before becoming a very successful wine merchant. Barton kept his Irish heritage, buying Grove House, a stately home and estate near Fethard. Known as ‘French Tom’ to the locals – despite being from Fermanagh – the family are central to the history of the town:

Thomas Barton was succeeded in Grove by his son William. William Barton also played an integral part in the life of the local community, he was sovereign in the years 1816,18,19,21,23 and 29.He gave the site for the present Parish Church and also had greeted the public pump on the Square. The pump was being used up to the mid thirties. It became part of Fethard folklore when the rallying cry of old time Fethard football supporters was “Come on the two streets and a pump”.

So what of the whiskey itself – on the nose there is a little menthol, cut with green fruits, but with a real deep rich plummy note from the wine finish. On the palette there is a lot more of the traditional Green Spot tongue-smacking astringency and less of those velvety wine elements. The front is where it’s at, with a rich caramel flavour that passes all too quickly. I feel like I do about Green Spot generally – I like it, but I’m not going to sell my soul to get a bottle. At €69, this is a good whiskey – but not one I would be shouting from the rooftops about.

Redbreast Lustau

One whiskey I do shout from all surfaces about is Redbreast. When people ask me to recommend an Irish whiskey, it is the one I always fall back on – it was my first foray into the upper echelons of whiskey, and is one I will always have a special place in my heart for. So expectations are even higher for their latest release in this line, the Lustau Edition. Here is some press release:

Redbreast has introduced a new, permanent expression to its decorated Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey family; Redbreast Lustau Edition. Finished in hand selected, first-fill sherry butts that are seasoned with Oloroso sherry from the prestigious Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain, this release celebrates the iconic sherry influence found throughout the Redbreast range.

Matured initially in a combination of exceptional ex-Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks, Redbreast Lustau Edition has been wholly finished for one year in prized sherry butts from Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, the sherry capital of the world.

So what of this one: This has a real, rich fruit element to it that is fantastic – on the nose it has fruit and nut dark chocolate, sherry trifle, a hint of incense. Like they always say, Christmas cake in a glass – on the palette, beyond the stewed fruits, marzipan and lots of salted caramel brittle, but like all the Redbreasts this is just liquid silk. Incredible mouth-coating, oily gush with a snap, crackle and pop as the flavours go to work. I would still favour the 12, but that is simply that I am an ageist. One of the things I love about whiskey is the idea that you are buying time – this drink in your hand lay sleeping in a cask for a decade or more, and when you drink it you are consuming all those years, all that time. As I get older and ever closer to the inevitable maw of the wolf of oblivion, this is important to me; if I drink the waters of life, I want to know how many years I am consuming. Make it NAS and I just spend my time wondering how old it actually is (in this case, 10-13 years). That’s not to take from this whiskey – age statement or not, it is excellent. I’m not saying that the Green Spot is a child of a lesser god – I just prefer the profile of the Redbreast. Green Spot is lighter, to me, it’s a summer whiskey; great with ice or even a mixer. Redbreast is winter, rich food and warm fires, short days and long nights of sitting about like an especially lazy emperor, darkness and comfort. If I had to recommend one over the other, it would obviously be the Redbreast Lustau sherry edition, but bear in mind that this is the recommendation of someone who got drunk for the first time at age 12 on an especially potent sherry trifle, so my opinion may be skewed (and my brain damaged).

Thank you to the good people at Burrell PR for the bottle of Black Barrel, and the samples of the Green Spot and the Lustau.