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.
Think of Scotch whisky as music, and the regions are genres – Speyside is pop, Islay is heavy metal, Islands are Soundcloud rap, Campbelltown is folk, Lowlands are classical. What then of the Highlands? Their particular ouvre lies somewhere between Wagner and polka – lots of deep bass, robust melodies – this is a region that marches to the beat of an ancient drum. But of course, this is seeing the area as a group, rather than as individuals within a genre. And what if one of those individuals suddenly started making a solo album – one with steel drums and island rhythms? Now imagine one of them was Einsturzende Neubauten crossed with Jackie Mittooo – strange instruments and tropical notes.
It has taken Fettercairn quite some time to get its moment in the spotlight – 195 years to be precise. Its founder, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was one of the first Scottish landowners to campaign for the making of whisky to be licensed, and in 1824 was one of the first to be granted permission to make whisky. Obviously, distilling had been taking place across the highlands for some time – all around the flat farmlands of the Mearns, upon which Fettercairn Distillery sits, there are valleys and nooks ideal for setting up an illicit still. It was to these highland foothills with their secret bothies that Ramsay turned for his staff, hiring the stillmen to run his new distillery. Ramsay also built a vast mansion, Fasque, which ultimately dragged him into debt, and Fettercairn was sold to a Liverpudlian merchant family named Gladstone in 1829. If that name sounds familiar, it should – one of the sons, William Ewart Gladstone, went on to be prime minister of the United Kingdom four times. Gladstone abolished the taxes on malt and the angel’s share, and allowed scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time.
Fettercairn changed hands many times over the years, was razed by fire, shut in 1926 as the postwar lean times bit, reopened 13 years later, doubled capacity in the 1960s, and is now owned by Whyte and Mackay, where thus far it was mostly used for blends. As an Irish whiskey lover, most of this seems completely bizarre – to have all that history and heritage just waiting to be put into action as part of a brand. They have so many stories just waiting to be told – even their distillery manager, Stewart Walker, seems like he was born for the distillery’s solo run. Walker is a native of the village and a born communicator; he says he is delighted to see the distillery he has worked in for three decades be celebrated for its many merits. After all, it is as unique as the unicorn crest suggests.
In the 1960s, workers were hosing down the stills when they realised that their work was affecting the spirit, adding an extra layer of reflux. So they had the bright idea of adding a water feature to the neck of the spirit stills. It is quite the sight to behold – water being brought in from a small reservoir of water collected from a local burn, piped into the still house, then coursing down the outside of a still neck from a brass ring, being collected and then sent back to the reservoir. According to your hosts, the only other still to feature such a bizarre contraption is fellow Emperador/W&M stablemate Dalmore, which at least had the decency to hide its strange feature under a layer of copper. Temperature controls on the neck of a still are not unknown – Blackwater Distillery in Ireland has still what are effectively grappa stills, with internal temperature controls on the neck. But Fettercairn brandishes its steampunk water feature like a body modification, out there for all to see.
Fettercairn had a stab at a solo career in the last few years – Old Fettercairn was a NAS bottling in the 1980s, and a 12-year-old single malt was released as ‘1824’. Fior and Fasque appeared ten years ago, opting for a more sleek and elegant look. But they also failed to set the world alight. Aside from these there were the usual peppering of indie bottlings, but it is only in the last 18 months that the distillery has been given a more complete offering. That said, there are gaps in the portfolio. The range jumps from a 12 year old to a 28 in the blink of an eye, then scales the giddy peaks of premiumisation with a 40 year old finished in an apostoles Sherry cask and a 50, finished in a tawny port pipe. These ring up at a challenging stg£3,000 and an eye-watering stg£10,000 respectively. But it is the space between the stg£50 12-year-old and the stg£500 28-year-old that needs to be filled – and Fettercairn has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, with warehouses on site filled with dusty casks just waiting to be discovered (even though the plundering of those same warehouses for blends is why the gap exists).
So they have the past, they have the future, they have the plans, and crucially, they have the financial backing. But how do you get folks to sit up and take notice? How do you catch the attention of whisky lovers? How do you gain purchase in the crowded hearts of the malt masses? Well, you can invite a few of them round, which is where this moves from talking about whisky to talking about talking about whisky. Please join me now as I draw back the velvet drapes and invite you into the gold-gilt world of the influencer as I enjoy 36 hours of corporate seduction in a suprasternal notch of the Scottish highlands.
Ah Nethermill House, a place trapped in time. While considerable amounts of money have been spent on the distillery visitors centre for their brand reawakening, the sizeable house adjacent to the facility itself is as yet untouched. It’s hard to put a year on exactly when it was last done up, but I would hazard a guess that it is somewhere in the late Seventies or early Eighties. As a result it is a glorious time capsule – bedrooms are done out in colour schemes, one is a pastel moss green, another is mauve, the kitchen has a serving hatch, and the loft has been converted into a games room, complete with snooker table. It is like the set of a BBC Play For Today, and as I waited for the rest of the guests to arrive I half expected Beverly Moss to sashay in and stick on some Demis Roussos.
One by one the rest of the guests arrived, and this part of junkets is always the best – meeting people whose work you admire, who you have chatted with online, but there, in real life, and now you have to talk to them despite being socially awkward anywhere but the internet. Add to that the anxiety of having to eat in front of them, as we were all whisked off to the former maltings for a posh picnic. I hadn’t eaten since a sleepy airport muffin at 5am, so I tried to control myself and descend into full wolverine mode, but after realising that I couldn’t chat amiably and eat at the same time I just focussed on the latter, with my head down, like a rodent.
After that we had a tour of the distillery itself with Stewart Walker. We strolled up the fields to visit the water source, had a ramble around the warehouse and tried some magnificent drams, and got to pick up some quality lore. One cask was bought decades ago by a Japanese couple with a view to opening it on their 40th wedding anniversary. They divorced on their 38th. The cask still sits there, now destined for their kids. Life comes at you fast, but in whiskey, it comes at you slow.
In the afternoon we had a talk from David Farquhar of IGS Vertical Farm. It might seem like a random thing to happen on a drinks junket, but in many ways it isn’t – whisky is an agricultural product, after all. Farquhar talked us through what Intelligent Growth Solutions do – they build vertical farms, effectively tray upon tray of crops all tended to by robots, all with a unique digitally monitored ecosystem guided by the gloriously dystopian sounding ‘weather recipe’. Obviously the first question asked was – does this work for barley? My inner luddite was delighted to learn that no, it does not – it works primarily for physically smaller crops. It’s an interesting concept when you consider the debates around terroir – will crops from these floating farms have less soul than those from the soil? Maybe, but if you’re starving to death, you won’t really give a fuck about what soil types it grew in.
Then we were off to Glen Dye, a series of beautiful old stone cottages which are run as holiday homes by descendants of the Gladstones. There we dined some more, drank some more, and at some point I collapsed into bed, for the following day we were to earn our keep.
What made this trip interesting was that the brand, whilst fully formed, is still in a relative infancy, so it was a rare treat to take part in a focus group. We were talked through plans for the brand, for bottlings within that 12-20 gap, and just terms and phrases within the industry – is small batch meaningless, how rare is rare, that sort of thing. I just sat there quietly, as I genuinely don’t know much about whisky, especially compared to the folks in that room – I am Jedward to their Schoenberg.
After that it was more amazing food, and off to the airport. It was a whirlwind 36 hours, but one that I have thought of often in the last few weeks as isolation and quarantine took hold. As an Irish whiskey lover, one my takehomes from the trip (apart from an insanely generous swagbag) was this: There are distilleries like Fettercairn all over Scotland, with mountains of excellent mature stock, so many that they sometimes struggle to find their voice in the market, a spot on the supermarket shelf or a place in our hearts. Irish whiskey has a long way to go to catch up; the power of the industry, the ability to hire PR firms, marketing experts, specialists in whisky comms and branding to help create these remarkable events, these remarkable identities for products. There is a massive industry in Scotland based around all this, and that is what we need to look towards – a fully functioning whisky ecosystem that creates and sustains jobs across the sector. In the meantime, feel free to live vicariously through these ten million photos I took:
Sam Black says his firm’s logo has no real meaning. “It’s what the designer gave us,” he says bluntly when asked about the origins of the silhouette of a crow in flight. When pressed he admits that the image does conveniently tie his story together; he is the Black, while his wife’s maiden name was Crowley. It’s a far more fitting explanation – after all, without his wife Maud, there might not be a brewery.
Originally from the UK, Sam Black was travelling in Australia in 2001 when he met West Cork native Maud, an ortho theatre nurse. Sam, an engineer, always had an interest in brewing but it was the gift of a homebrewing set from his future wife one Valentine’s Day that made him rethink his career choices. Returning to live in Ireland in 2003, the brewing bug took hold and in 2013 they opened Blacks Brewery in the picturesque Cork seaside town of Kinsale. It was close to Maud’s home in Ahiohill near Clonakilty, while Sam – the son of a Scottish Baptist minister – had moved around a lot during his childhood and found it easy to settle almost anywhere.
The location was a smart one – as the southern start point of the Wild Atlantic Way, Kinsale has a steady tourist trade. Kinsale also harbours a thriving foodie culture, and their brewery was able to tap into both of these in its early days, when there were relatively few craft brewers in Ireland. The first few years were hard – there were no investors or backers, just their own money and determination. But it got off the ground at an ideal time as there were few competitors. In the last few years this has been reversed, with a wide array of craft brewers, as well as macro breweries pushing brands that ape small-scale operations but are not. But Blacks Brewery products are on all shelves – Tesco, Musgraves etc all carry their wares.
Then they started making poitín on a stainless steel iStill, but the rules changed, meaning you had to distill in a pot, column still or hybrid still. So they moved on to gin, and even made a spiced rum, which they make entirely in-house. But the time had come for whiskey.
Initially, Blacks released a sourced Cooley 12 year old whiskey, which they announced with zero guff:
We could have pretended that it was distilled here or even just matured here giving it some magical Kinsale provenance. We could have even created from a tale of some ancient Kinsale recipe or that it used ingredients foraged in Kinsale. But we would rather just be honest … It’s simple, it was distilled elsewhere.
They then used the whiskey casks they had after they bottled the sourced 12-year-old single malt to finish their rum in, and have since released Black Ops, a blend of malt and grain. They are currently waiting on stills – a 2,400 litre wash and 1,500 litre spirit still – from Frilli in Italy. The stills will be like Teelings’ ‘but smaller’ according to Sam. But even small stills are not cheap, so they are looking for funding through a cask programme.
There are two schools of thought on cask programmes – one, the average founders club price tag of anywhere between 5k and 7k is crazy, and not worth the money.
The second aspect to founders clubs is that they aren’t about investing in a cask, they are about investing in a dream – to feel like you are part of a distillery. This is what Dingle did so well with their Founding Fathers programme; members feel a sense of ownership. So for every person who buys one of those not-entirely-cheap casks, you have a brand ambassador who has your back. If you are looking for a financial return, whiskey probably isn’t the greatest way to get it, especially given the rate at which distilleries have been popping up here and a market that will be, if not flooded, then certainly well lubricated with whiskey casks in ten to 15 years’ time. So if you are going to pitch a founders club, make it a modest proposal, like Blacks:
We realise that many investors may not have ready funds to invest in this scheme and have developed a win- win scenario for people who still wish to be involved. We have partnered with Flexi-Fi Finance company with an exclusive offer. For example investors can take the package option for €6500 Bourbon cask. If you choose to invest this way you will of course have to pay interest on your loan from the finance company but you will still gain some cash if you exit via the Buy Back Scheme.
Package cost €6500. Total amount repayable with FlexiFi over 36 months is €7,493.12
Representative example Total Amount of Credit: €6,500 over 36 month term with 7.99% interest rate. €35 application fee, €3.50 monthly account fee. APR of 9.95%. Total Amount Payable: €7,493.12. The Buy back scheme offers a Guarantee min value via buy back scheme €7910 equal to a cash gain of €426.88.
The €426.88 is the minimum return via the buy back scheme you may also avail of any of the exit options available and maximise the potential of your investment in 5 years time.
Their stills are in the final phase of construction at the moment and are due on-site soon – once commissioned, maturation will take place at West Cork Distillers sprawling facility down the road in Skibbereen. Sam plans unusual mashbills and casks, and hopes to offer an array of releases, just as he did with his beers.
He is philosophical about the next stage: “We’re not trying to change the world, we just want to make products that people will enjoy and engage with, and stuff that we can enjoy and have fun with. We’re never going to hit Jameson levels of sales.”
I hadn’t been in Powerscourt House & Gardens since I was a child. My memories of it are vague – rolling down the grassy hills with my sister, getting lost in the Japanese gardens, and being scared by the statues of gods and monsters. Walking through the house and back out onto that incredible garden, three decades later, was a supremely odd feeling – my family are gone, and I was there alone, wandering around thinking about all those memories I now carry alone, moments to which I am the only living witness, and how no matter the power of the love we feel for each other, in the end it is all for naught as every living thing will one day die. So you have to just grab this motherfucker of a life with both hands and sink your teeth into it. In other words, when you get an invite to the opening of a distillery, even one 300 kilometres away, you go.
At some point down the road I will write a proper piece on Powerscourt Distillery, but some initial thoughts: What this project has is pedigree. Director Alex Pierce has a background in start-ups, but it is his link to Arran that is most impressive – his family have a track record of setting up and operating a very successful distillery. Master distiller Noel Sweeney is that most rare of creatures – an actual master distiller. There are many who use that title, but to me it has to be earned, rather that just assigned. Mastery should be proved.
So you have a director who knows what he is about, a distiller who is a master, and a setting that is glorious. The location, on the grounds of Powerscourt estate, and next door to one of the great old houses of Ireland, offers elements that many distilleries here lack – history, heritage, grandeur.
Powerscourt is also home to an exceptional five-star hotel, one that a commoner like me could nary afford. I had heard it was quite the celeb hangout, but nothing prepared me for who I spotted when I walked in the door, the biggest celebrity in Ireland if not the world – Craig fucking Doyle! Incredible, can’t believe I saw him in real life and not in an in-flight magazine trying to sell me insurance or electricity.
Anyway – here is some rich, delicious press release to fill this post out a bit:
The Powerscourt Distillery Launches Three New Whiskey Expressions
Introducing Fercullen Premium Irish Whiskeys
The Powerscourt Distillery proudly unveils three new Irish whiskeys under the brand name Fercullen; Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey. Released by award winning Master Distiller Noel Sweeney, these opening expressions form part of a planned portfolio of premium Irish whiskeys being launched by the distillery and soon to open Distillery Visitor Centre.
‘FeraCulann’ or ‘Fercullen’ is the Gaelic name given to the ancient and strategically important lands that surround and encompass Powerscourt Estate. Literally translated it stands for “Men of Cuala” or “Men of the Wicklow Hills”, the historical context of which has involved several centuries of local discourse, dispute and battle prior to the arrival of peace and calm in the hands of visionary custodians.
Set against the stunning backdrop of the great Sugarloaf Mountain and enjoying a long heritage of dedication and craftmanship, Powerscourt has become one of Ireland’s most treasured estates – an inspiring location where the extraordinary is possible. With an underground lake of the purest Wicklow water, close proximity to rich farming lands and a temperate coastline climate It sets the perfect stage for distilling and maturing Irish whiskey.
According to Alex Peirce, Chief Executive of The Powerscourt Distillery. “Our location is important in that it provides inspiration. The local history, heritage and natural beauty of Powerscourt are all cohesive elements in providing the perfect platform for Noel’s work. We use pure mineral water that has filtered down into the Estate from the surrounding Wicklow hills and we are located close to some of the best barley growing lands in Ireland. Perseverance and patience have long represented the cornerstones to whiskey production and so it seemed fitting to adopt “Fercullen”, the ancient name for these lands, to introduce to our whiskey story at The Powerscourt Distillery.
Once the hub of all farming on the Estate, an Old Mill House that dates back to 1730’s has been faithfully restored and extended to form part of the Distillery buildings. It boasts a water mill deep in its foundations, while outside on the north-west wall of the building, a bell that was used to herald the daily lunch break to workers in distant fields presents a nod to former times and local practice. Both are being preserved to form part of the wider visitor experience.
The carefully appointed distillery, visitor centre and adjoining maturation facilities form the initial phase of the building project. Three traditional, custom-designed copper pot stills from world-renowned Forsyths form the centrepiece at The Powerscourt Distillery.
The Powerscourt Distillery Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has played a huge part in the design and commissioning of the modern plant. Noel’s experience, spanning over 30 years, has earned him global recognition and sits comfortably in a place renowned for attention to detail, craft and vision. Having formerly distilled the spirit that will be used by Fercullen, Noel is now also responsible for the new spirit being produced and laid down by the distillery – a unique attribute on today’s Irish whiskey landscape.
“The decisions that I make impart huge influence over the spirit produced,” says Noel Sweeney, Master Distiller at Powerscourt Distillery. “So many choices and decisions affect the way that spirit forms and matures into whiskey”
To mark and celebrate its opening year the Powerscourt Distillery has also designed a limited availability Cask Programme – the first and only such programme that it will undertake. At 397 casks (each one representing a foot of water from the nearby Powerscourt Waterfall), the cask programme offers a premium level of involvement and association with the distillery to private individuals who wish to become part of The Powerscourt Distillery family. Together with ownership of a 200L new fill cask to be housed in the Distillery’s warehouse on the Estate, members will enjoy exclusive access to special events and private whiskey tastings, first access to limited edition whiskeys and an exclusive presentation of the otherwise unavailable Fercullen 16-Year-Old Single Malt.
Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey €58 RRP, Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey €92 RRP and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey €45 RRP is available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, The Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow; The Celtic Whiskey Shop and Mitchell & Sons, or online fromwww.powerscourtdistillery.com
The Powerscourt Distillery and Visitor Centre is currently available for a private, group bookings by appointment only. Contact email@example.com for information. For information on cask purchases please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has received several awards for distilling and whiskey excellence. He was inducted into The Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017 and currently remains as one of just two Irish distillers to have been recognised in this way. A globally renowned whiskey expert, Noel is passionate about his craft and has released many international award-winning Irish whiskies over the years. He is a member of the Irish Spirits Association, a founding member of the Irish Whiskey Association and a key contributor to the GI technical file for Irish whiskey. Noel has devoted over 30 years patiently honing his craft and learning from former masters. He held a former position as assistant distiller to Gordon Mitchell, the first distiller at the Isle of Arran Distillery, Scotland.
The provenance of The Powerscourt Estate can be traced back to the 6th century, to a territory that stretches across fertile plains and through rugged mountainous terrain. Known in its native Gaelic tongue as “Fera-Culann” or Fercullen, its location in the foothold of the Wicklow mountains, so close to Dublin, made it a highly valued, strategic place. Ownership was claimed by numerous factions over the centuries, from the native Clans of O’Toole and O’Byrne, to the Norman house of LePoer, who built a castle there and from whom the estate takes its name. In the early 17th century, Powerscourt was gifted by Queen Elizabeth I to a favoured army general, Sir Richard Wingfield, an ancestral relative of the Slazenger family who currently hold the Estate.
One of the best parts of the evening, apart from the incredible meal, great wines, cracking whiskeys, and being seated next to Noel Sweeney and hearing all his insane stories from the business, was seeing so many people who care passionately for Irish whiskey – John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan, Serghios from Irish Whiskey Magazine, the Burkes from Cask Magazine, John Wilson from the Irish Times, Suzi and Liam from TheTaste, Susan ‘Not The X-Factor One’ Boyle – a writer, performer, PhDer, and general Renaissance person – and Leslie Williams from the Irish Examiner, the first journalist to start raising the transparency issue in Irish whiskey. It was like seeing The Avengers in real life.
My many thanks also to Rebecca and Sarah from Burrell PR for inviting me, and to everyone for putting up with me giving out about my kids, who I missed terribly and raced home to see the next day. Well, raced home once I went to the waterfall and took these photos, like a sadcase.
“Nobody knows anything about us,” John O’Connell says of West Cork Distillers, the firm he co-founded and has poured 17 years of his life into.
It seems incongruous – at a time when Irish whiskey is booming, one of the most grassroots, ground-up operations in the country is also one of its least well-known. This is partly because they have no marketing department, no PR wing, and any money they have is put into making more whiskey, rather than advertising. As a result, they developed something of an air of mystery in the Irish whiskey scene – rumours circulate that they are the source of much of the third-party stock on the market (they are not), that they were behind Conor McGregor’s whiskey (that honour is held by Bushmills) or that they are some sort of secret state, a North Korea of Irish whiskey (this, they most definitely are not). West Cork Distillers, much like their founder, are simply quiet.
John O’Connell has no official title, a jarring fact given that he has his pick of several – master distiller, co-founder, CEO, CFO, visionary. But he doesn’t want a title, as he likes to run WCD with no hierarchical structure. Even the title of the company he created reflects this ethos – it is West Cork Distillers, not West Cork Distillery; this is about people, not things. When I asked if I could meet him in the Skibbereen distillery, he had one condition – that I meet as many of the staff as possible, as they were as central to the story of WCD as anything. And what a story it is.
From the little fishing village of Union Hall, O’Connell was one of nine children. After school he did a Phd in colloidal chemistry and food science only to discover upon graduation that there were few jobs for colloidal chemists in Ireland. Despite his claims that he ended up in this line and in the sciences generally ‘through confusion’ and that there is no masterplan to his career, his family have a tradition of science – his mother was a science teacher, while his sister is a doctor. His mother’s father was from Reenascreena between Glandore and Leap, and he was also a science teacher and keen botanist – he was also key to the excavation of Drombeg stone circle.
Despite the lack of jobs, O’Connell didn’t want to leave Ireland to find work, but he ended up working with Unilever doing food science research in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Japan. Unilever was based on a campus that had so many staff it had its own bank, while staff members could often be seen playing croquet at lunch – this was a vast organisation.
O’Connell realised that he could affect little change at Unilever, so he moved on to Kerry Group, a job which he loved. As head of research, he was in control of a significant budget and travelled all over Europe to food science plants conducting research. He says joining Kerry Group was the second best decision he ever made, and leaving it was the very best – because that was the genesis of West Cork Distillers.
Not far from O’Connell’s family home in Union Hall lived his two first cousins, Denis McCarthy and Gerard McCarthy. All three came from large families, and O’Connell says he can’t remember a time in his life when Ger (one of eight children) and Den (one of seven) weren’t in it. The McCarthy cousins became deep sea fishermen, a brutal job which in its modern form is akin to a kind of indentured servitude, as you are tied to an ever-deepening debt for your boat and gear.
So the three cousins decided to come up with something else to do. First they were going to process seaweed, but the capital expenditure on that was too high. So they set up West Cork Distillers in a room at the back of Den’s house, with two small stills they bought from a schnapps producer in Switzerland. It may seem like an odd choice of venture – this was back in 2003, when Irish whiskey was only starting to wake from its century-long slumber, and it made almost no economic sense to start what a media savvy marketing team would brand as a craft micro-distillery.
It made no sense to open a distillery – but there was a tradition of distilling in the family. O’Connell came from a long line of distillers – albeit the illegal variety. O’Connell’s father came from Coppeen in the Coolea Mountains, the poitin heartland of west Cork, where many families ran their own stills. His father’s brother even took the family’s distilling heritage overseas – working in the 1960s as a porter in a UK hospital he set up what he claimed was a dark room for developing photos, but was in fact an illicit still – run right under the noses of the nuns. So while there was a tradition of science in the family, there was a less well-known tradition of distilling there also. Embracing this ancient art, and using his vast expertise in food science, O’Connell and his cousins set to making alcoholic spirits in a back room, hoping for the best.
The first product from West Cork Distillers was Drombeg, which was not distilled, but was fermented, meaning it benefited from the advantage of a lower revenue rate. However, the State didn’t see it that way, and so it was that the three friends took on the Irish Revenue Service in Dublin Castle, represented themselves, and won. They got the better tax rate. This was going to be one of several skirmishes with the various arms of the state for the west Cork men.
In the meantime, they got to work on their distilling operation, building equipment as they needed to expand. O’Connell says that if you find yourself a fisherman, or a farmer, then you have a person of many skills – chemist, welder, builder, meteorologist, fabricator. As they expanded, they built everything they needed from scratch, and still do – the majority of equipment in West Cork Distillers sizeable operation outside Skibbereen has been built on site. To see how much they have built is inspirational – elements such as The Rocket, ‘the fastest still in the world’ according to drinks consultants Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley. But it’s name isn’t just from the speed it distills at, but the fact that it looks like a ballistic missile, although keen observers will note that the top of it looks very much like a large domestic boiler, because that is, in fact, what it is.
After their Drombeg release came the Kennedy range, which brought more controversy as whiskey fans felt it was an insult to their category; it was a brown spirit at a lower ABV that was aimed at the Asian market, a field that O’Connell knew from his travels. He says himself that with their earliest products they were ‘clutching at straws’ to get the firm off the ground. Undaunted by drinks snobbery, they ploughed on with their firm, despite the fact that at times it must have felt like the whole world was against them.
O’Connell’s family were shocked that he had left a dream job as head of R&D with Kerry Group to make booze in a back yard, so he had to make it work. WCD didn’t have time to pander to whiskey snobs, so they released Kennedy as a savoury brown spirit. However, they were making straight up whiskey as well. They started laying down new make in 2008 and increased the volumes they were laying down in 2012, with higher volumes again in 2014. O’Connell went on a fact-finding mission to MGP, Indiana’s super-producing distillery, saw how they worked, both as a producer and as a commercial entity, and replicated it with WCD.
After five years in Den’s yard, they moved to Skibbereen’s Market Street in 2014, and with the expansion they now had rates to pay, staff to pay, and all the pressures of a growing business. Fortunate then that they landed what was a massive new-make contract, which helped them turn a corner. This was also a turning point for the Irish whiskey category – sales were accelerating, but rather than cash in, WCD have kept a level head – as O’Connell says, if they are selling their whiskeys for more than Redbreast, they are losing. They need to keep that competitive edge against the big guns.
O’Connell has a fantastically down to earth attitude about WCD. He is polite, and good company, but he isn’t one for schmoozing. He recently pulled WCD from the Irish Whiskey Association, as he felt it was an unnecessary expense for his firm. WCD just keep their head down and work, quietly growing all the time. They don’t do tours of their distillery, but they never turn anyone away.
The site they bought in 2016 – a former fish processing plant – is a 12.5 acre area where they do everything – fermentation, distilling, warehousing, bottling – and almost all the equipment was built by hand right there in west Cork.
“Desperation is great motivation,” O’Connell humbly says, but they have clients all over the world – more than 65 countries, from Japan to Belize, the latter being a country that O’Connell had to try and find on a map after the deal was closed.
Underneath all of this work, all this blood sweat and tears, is O’Connell’s vision to just make Irish whiskey accessible – it’s an ethos reflected in both their pricing and their range. Their sourced range – the ten and 12 year old malts finished in sherry and rum casks – retail for about 42 euro a bottle. Most of the sourced ten year old malt on the shelf in Ireland is around 60 and upwards, even though they quite possibly come from the exact same distillery (either Bushmills or Cooley, most likely the former).
O’Connell is one of the most disarmingly open and honest people you will meet in Irish whiskey – he will tell you anything if you simply ask. At talks or tastings he shares spreadsheets of their production output, and talks openly about buying equipment to analyse their own and their competitors products to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. He is an extraordinary man, a man of great faith, in science, in religion and in people, who has never backed down and never given up on WCD. He says that, if he could go back, he wouldn’t do it all again, that the price has been too high, all the heartbreak and battles too their toll. But it is hard to imagine him anywhere else.
Asked if he would sell if the money was right, his response is a straight no: “I wouldn’t know what to do. I work six days a week, on Sunday I go to Mass and have dinner with my mother and father, but then I’m back in here in the afternoon. I love working here with my friends and I love that our business has a positive effect on the economy locally.”
With 54 staff – many having come from the fishing industry – and an ever expanding operation, WCD is a significant employer in a region where jobs can be harder to find than they are closer to the urban centre of Cork city. WCD have sourced whiskey, produce for third-party sales, release their own stock under their own labels as well as celebrity brands such as Pogues Irish Whiskey, and are not afraid to experiment, releasing a whiskey finished in a cask that has been infused with peat smoke, an inversion of the famous scotches made with peated barley. They even make small amounts of rye and rum, and also buy in rum from eight different islands in the Caribbean. They also have about 20,000LPAs of mature pot still whiskey. Half of their new make is sold to other people – bourbon, scotch and Japanese whisky producers – but they still have plenty for themselves, and have built an excellent relationship with the McLoughlins of Kelvin Cooperage, a relationship that saw WCD getting their hands on ex-Michter’s rye casks that were toasted, rather than charred, a relative rarity. Everything with WCD is kosher – literally, as they were the first Irish distiller to receive kosher certification. WCD is growing, quietly, and with little fuss. There are no headline-grabbing PR stunts, just heads-down whiskey business. At the heart of it all is O’Connell’s wish to make Irish whiskey accessible, no frills, no bells and whistles, no spin – a whiskey for the people, produced in a distillery for the people.
Eight new maturation warehouses, holding 16,800 casks each, to be built at Dungourney maturation site
Additional equipment installed in Midleton Distillery to expand capacity
Sunday, 14th of October 2018: Irish Distillers, the makers of the world’s most enjoyed whiskeys and one of Ireland’s leading suppliers of spirits and wines, has announced the investment of over €150 million in its sites in Cork and Dublin to meet demand for its products as the Irish whiskey renaissance continues apace. This is accelerated by the continued growth of Jameson which is now in double or triple-digit growth in more than 80 markets across the world. Nearly €130 million is to be spent expanding and upgrading the distillery in Midleton, and maturation site in Dungourney, Co. Cork, with over €20 million being invested in development of its bottling plant in Fox and Geese, Co. Dublin.
The investment will see the construction of eight new maturation warehouses, each holding 16,800 casks, with further land to be purchased to support the next phase of development, in Dungourney, Co. Cork.
The company has also added an additional mechanical vapour recompression evaporator, made by GEA Wiegand in Germany, to its Midleton Distillery in East Cork. The addition allows the distillery to further expand its capacity. A third mash filter and new fermenters are also to be installed in the distillery to meet the increasing demand for its portfolio of whiskeys. The distillery will also complete construction of a new office building in July 2019.
Investment in Irish Distillers’ bottling site in Fox and Geese will see extensions to the main operating bottling hall, storage warehouses, laboratory, and office spaces and additional upgrades to bottling and packing equipment.
Commenting on the investment, Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO said: “This €150 million investment in Midleton, Dungourney and Fox and Geese reflects the growing international success of Irish Distillers’ whiskey portfolio. With a tradition dating back to 1780, we have been distilling in the Midleton Distillery since 1975 and we are delighted to confirm our commitment to this tradition, and at the same time continue to embrace progress, delivering new and innovative expressions of Irish whiskey. We look forward to building upon our success story by continuing to bring innovative Irish whiskeys to the market.
“Irish whiskey is the fastest growing premium spirit in the world, with sales now accounting for more than one third of all Irish beverage exports. This investment will help to allow this growth to continue for years to come. The company is proud to play its role in the Irish drinks industry, which is a hugely important part of the Irish economy.”
Press release ends. No mention of another distillery…..yet. While you’re here, please enjoy this piece of wild speculation á la Bill – Arise.
Our little nation may not have the respect for its food culture, but when it comes to drink, few nations do it better. The last two decades have seen us spread our wings, with an explosion of craft breweries, distilleries, even wineries. With all that we have to offer, this season of feasting is as good an excuse as any to celebrate our remarkable skill at making excellent booze.
Craft beer – The biggest obstacle to getting into craft beer is the sheer variety – it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the array of brands, styles and increasingly unusual labels. Once you figure out the difference between an IPA, sour, saison or just what a lager is, you then have to try figure out which brand is an actual craft beer and which is brewed by a massive multinational and dressed up to look like a craft beer. The easiest thing to do is to find out where your nearest craft brewery is, and buy their produce. This way you get to call yourself a localvore, which makes you cool. Why not dip your toe into the delicious world of craft beer with one of the grandaddies of them all – the Franciscan Well Brewery on Cork’s North Mall. Their Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Friar Weisse are available almost everywhere (thanks to the market penetration of parent company Molson Coors, who bought the Well four years ago). Beyond that, Whiplash make some incredibly striking brews, both aesthetically and in their flavour profile – try their Drone Logic or Body Riddle. Dungarvan Brewing Company have the Helvick Gold Irish Blonde Ale, or Blacks of Kinsale’s IPA.
Porter/stout – Technically a subsection of craft beers, but since our national drink is the black stuff, it deserves a mention of its own. This is the time of year for porter (made with malted barley) and stouts (unmalted roasted barley), so there are many craft brewers releasing their own variations. One perennial that is always worth a punt is the West Kerry Brewey’s Carraig Dubh Porter, the closest you will get to dark matter on earth. A dense, heavy porter, there is eating and drinking in this absolute monster of a brew. Since this is the season of darkness, there are plenty of one-off seasonal porter and stouts from the craft breweries – 12 Acres have Winter Is Coming oatmeal porter, Boyne Brewhouse have a barrel aged imperial stout, Eight Degrees have Holly King imperial stout, and Western Herd offer Night Pod vanilla porter.
Vodka – Once seen as the drink of those who didn’t know what to drink, vodka is becoming more of a stand-alone drink in recent times, as we consumer more spirits on their own to savour their flavour, rather than drowned in an unpleasant energy drink. The old line about selling ice to the eskimos springs to mind when you discover that Blackwater Distillery in west Waterford make vodka for the Finnish government – but their output isn’t all shipped over to the Nordic lands. Blackwater also have their Woulfe’s Vodka in Aldi (24.99) while they also have their own Copper Pot Distilled Vodka (34.99). Then there is the Hughes Distillery’s Ruby Blue range, a potato distilled vodka, for around 38.99, or they have a whiskey-cask finished vodka for c 55. If you’re looking for an Irish Grey Goose, Kalak is a quadruple distilled vodka from West Cork – incredibly smooth, this retails for 40 – 45.
Whiskey – What can we say about Irish whiskey – the fastest growing spirits category in the world, it is selling like hotcakes. Distilleries are springing up everywhere, and there are brands popping up like mushrooms. But beyond the holy trinity of Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley there aren’t that many distilleries with mature stock. So we will start with them – Midleton has Redbreast (65), an oldschool single pot still that is Christmas in a glass, with lots of notes of stewed fruits, spices and a creamy mouthfeel. Bushmills has the old reliable, Black Bush, an oft overlooked but core expression in their range, which retails for about 34, but can usually be found for less at this time of year. Cooley have the Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira Finish (70), a classic example of just how on-point John Teeling’s former operation could be. But hark – a challenger approaches – Dingle is the first distillery to release an independent single pot still whiskey in decades. It is a rich succulent whiskey, with notes of leather, tobacco and that heavy sherry influence, but it is more than that – it is a piece of liquid history (70). A limited release, it will sell fast. West Cork Distillers have their own stock, and a wild spirit of experimentation – try their Glengarriff series peat smoked and bog oak smoked casked whiskey.
Gin – A category that has exploded, partly due to the rise of whiskey distilleries looking to generate revenue while their whiskey stocks mature – Dingle Distillery’s award-winning gin is a great example. Blackwater Distillery have released a barrage of gins, often seasonal, like their Boyle’s Gin for Aldi (24.99) and accompanying damson variation. However, they also created a perfect storm for the Irish mammy by distilling a gin using Barry’s Tea – mother’s ruin and mother’s greatest comfort in one, who would have thought of such a thing? Another excellent Irish gin with elements of tea is Patrick Rigney’s Gunpowder gin, one of the most beautiful gins on the shelf and with a liquid that equals the packaging.
Poitin – Finding it in the wild is a rarity – the tradition of illegal distilling is disappearing fast, so it’s up to the modern distillers to keep the category alive. Aldi have an Irish-distilled Dolmen poitin, while there is also Bán poitín (55) from Echlinville distillery up North, which also comes in the quirky variation of Bán Barrelled and Buried (59) which has been casked and buried for a short period. Perhaps save this one for the goth in your life. Glendalough do a variety of poitins, showing the sheer potential of the category – entry level (38.99), Mountain Strength (48.99), and sherry finish (39.99). The Teeling boys also do a poitin (34.99), while the Straw Boys poitin (49.95) from Connaught Distillery is also worth a shot.
Wine – Nobody thinks of Ireland when they hear the word wine, yet there are, in fact, Irish-made wines. Wicklow Way Wines is Ireland’s first fruit winery, home to Móinéir Fine Irish Fruit Wine, specifically a strawberry wine (20) – granted, not the best suited to a dank Christmas, but a welcome taste of summer in a bleak midwinter; or why not try their blackberry wine (20)? David Llewellyn creates Lusca wines in Lusk – his Cabernet Merlot (43.99) is more than just a curiosity.
Cider – the quintessential all-season drink – with ice in summer, or mulled in winter, as advised by the good people at Longueville House, whose dry cider (4) is a beauty. Multi-award winning Stonewell from Nohoval offer some beautiful ciders, but their tawny is perfect for that festive cheese plate – a a rich, opulent and viscous cider, dark in colour and possessing complex bittersweet flavours. Also offering a solid core range is Johnny Fall Down – they’ve created an award winning Bittersweet Cider, a uniquely Irish Rare Apple Port (Pommeau), and the first Ice Cider created mainly from bittersweet varietals.
Mead – With all the fuss about Game Of Thrones, who doesn’t want to live like a feudal lord and quaff mead? Naturally, being an aristocratic drink, the barony of Kinsale is home to Ireland’s latest entrant into the category. One of the oldest drinks in the world, their variations on this honey-based drink come in dry, with a refreshing citrus orange honey flavour, or their Wild Red, a melomel or fruit mead type, made from a Spanish dark forest honey, tart blackcurrants and sweet cherries to produce a zesty fruity aroma and long finish.
Brandy – Not the most crowded category, it would appear that there is only one Irish brandy – Longueville House’s beautiful apple brandy. Made in the stately home, it is distilled from their cider and aged for at least four years in French oak barrels. A perfect end to your Christmas feast.
Irish cream – The Irish cream category got a bad name, thanks to aunties everywhere drinking too much of it and embarrassing you. However, it is a hedonistic festive treat. The festive classic – Baileys over ice, ice-cream or in a coffee – is an oft-overlooked delight. There are of course, other Irish cream drinks – the wonderful Coole Swan, Cremor, Carolans, and Kerrygold. If there;s any left over, there’s always a Toblerone and Baileys cheesecake just crying out to be made.
Hard coffee – Technically not really a category at all – until this year. Conor Coughlan’s Black Twist is single origin coffee brewed with whiskey. Don’t think Kahlua or Tia Maria – this has none of their cloying sweetness. Black Twist leans far more into coffee territory than whiskey, and is excellent over ice as a digestif, or as the secret weapon in a cocktail. Of course, this is the season to be jolly responsibly – so Black Castle Drinks offer something a little bit special so the designated driver won’t feel like a plum sipping their Red TK and raspberry cordial in the corner. Their craft sodas include Fiery Ginger Beer and Berry Bramble Sting, and are a treat for all ages.
Most of the above are available in SuperValu, your local artisan offie, or online. Almost all of the drinks are made by small, independent firms who are simply trying something new – supporting them, and our food and drink industry, really is the perfect Christmas gift.
I wrote a few bits for the Examiner to go in a seasonal supplement on Midleton, naturally I started with the distillery, then a well-curated email interview with Ignacio, above, GM of the heritage centre, and a couple of other bits, including one on Iceland. You pay me and I will write about anything guys, anything.
There used to be two distilleries in Midleton. Everyone knows about the Jameson one on the east side of town; but at the other end of the main street, alongside the Owenacurra River, close to the Mill Road site of Erin Foods, there was once another sizeable whiskey making operation. The Hackett brothers opened on this site in the early 1800s and at their height they produced 200,000 gallons of whiskey and employed 60 people. They had an eye on the future, with an interest in distilling from sugar beet. A series of unfortunate business moves and economic factors outside their control saw them lose it all, and no trace of the distillery remains. The story of the Hacketts serves as a fitting counterpoint to the fortunes of the Murphy brothers who started Midleton Distillery. They ran a tight ship, one that made it through two centuries of choppy waters, and made Midleton the stronghold of Irish whiskey, given that at one stage the only other distillery was Bushmills in Northern Ireland.
The success of Midleton distillery is down the Murphy brothers’ choices – at the same time the Hacketts were experimenting with sugar beet, the Murphy brothers were keeping a steady eye on the horizon. They chose wisely from day one – even in their choice of location: They had the infrastructure in the form of an old mill and river alongside, giving them enough power their enormous mill wheel, and provide them with enough water to create 400,000 gallons of whiskey annually. When the Hacketts employed 60 staff, the Murphys had three times that number.
There is no trace of Hackett distillery in Midleton anymore. However, the Murphy distillery has kept the spirit alive for two hundred years, surviving the lean times from the early 1900s through periods of contraction in the industry and even a spell when the distillery was only operational a couple of days a week, such was the low level of demand for Irish whiskey. Of course, the last ten years has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world, thanks largely to Midleton and its owners, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.
Huge investment has seen the modern distillery become one of the most modern and efficient in the world, while the heritage side of it has gone from strength to strength, expanding their tourism offerings with the Irish Whiskey Academy, which offers bespoke two-day courses for the true whiskey nerd, and the micro-distillery, which not only brought distilling back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades, but has also become a space for experimentation with different grains.
Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO said: “Here at home we’re proud to see our Irish whiskey sales growing. We also welcomed the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association’s Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy in late 2016 which aims to increase Irish Whiskey Tourism from 653,277 visitors per annum up to 1.9 million visitors by 2025. We were delighted with the results of our €11 million redevelopment of the Jameson Distillery Bow St., which has welcomed more than 180,000 visitors despite being closed for six months. When combined with the Jameson Experience Midleton, we welcomed over 310,000 visitors to our brand homes to experience the best of Irish whiskey this year.”
IDL experienced another successful financial year in 2016/2017 with the acceleration of the global development of Jameson and its premium Single Pot Still Irish whiskey range, which includes the Spot whiskeys, as well as Redbreast. Innovation in its portfolio has been key to the sustained growth: Recent product launches include Jameson Caskmates, which experienced 110% volume growth in 2016/17.
A sign of the growing confidence in the category is the launch of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club, which invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required. The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Clearly, this is one offer aimed at the high rollers – the first member of the cask circle was Hollywood heavyweight Dana Brunetti, with a large number of recent members coming from Asia.
To top off a stellar year Midleton’s Redbreast 21-year-old and Midleton Dair Ghaelach were both in the top three of whisky legend Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018 is the 15th edition of the publication and contains taste notes for over 4,600 drams. With over 1,200 new whiskies tasted for the latest edition of the international guide, the supreme Col. Taylor faced stiff competition from European rivals to claim the top award. In third place behind Redbreast 21 and Col. Taylor was Glen Grant Aged 18 Years Rare Edition, which drops from its second-place finish in 2016. Commenting on the accolade, Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Irish Distillers said: “This nod from Jim Murray is truly heartwarming for me and everyone at Midleton Distillery who has helped to make Redbreast such an enjoyed whiskey. We are humbled by this and it’s really encouraging to see traditional Irish pot still whiskey take one of the top spots in the world of whiskeys and whiskies. When we were preparing for the launch of Redbreast 21 in 2013 and we were doing our tastings, we knew we had something special on our hands so it is great to see this appreciation shared by people across the world. This award is a testament to the team at Midleton and especially to my predecessors who had the foresight to squirrel away those casks that helped us to bring Redbreast 21 to the world.”
Midleton has outlived many other competitors – from the Hacketts at the other end of town, to distilleries all over Ireland that failed over the last two centuries. As we head into a second golden age of Irish whiskey, it will be Midleton that will guide the category to greater and greater success.
As general manager of The Jameson Experience Midleton, Ignacio Peregrina is in charge of one of southern Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions – perhaps a fitting career for someone who came from one of Europe’s top holiday destinations.
“I’m from Gran Canaria, an island famed for its welcome and tourism, and I wanted to move somewhere with a similar passion for hospitality. I arrived in Ireland just over 15 years ago; I came for the craic but ended up staying and building a life here. Once I met my future wife Claire I knew Ireland was the place for me. I met her within an hour of landing, my buddy picked me up from the airport and we went to a Salsa class where I met the wonderful Claire. We were married three years ago in Midleton and we are blessed to call Midleton our home.
“My path to Midleton started in Dublin. During my time there, I worked for four years in the Jameson Distillery Bow St. and I also undertook a degree in Hospitality and Tourism in DIT. I’ve always had a passion for food and drink so Dublin was a great place to explore this passion. During my time in Bow St., I built up experience across all areas of the business and that helped me to secure my dream job here in Midleton as General Manager of the Jameson Experience.”
Of course, he isn’t the only person to come from overseas to Midleton: “It is a great pleasure to welcome people from many different nations. A considerable percentage of our visitors arrive via tour operators and it’s always a good day for me to pull up at work and see buses filled with people excited to experience Midleton Distillery.
“The top five visiting nationalities, in no particular order, are French, German, British, American and Irish, with the Jameson Experience tour being our largest selling tour. However, in recent years we have opened the Micro Distillery and Irish Whiskey Academy and the craft tours we have created for these areas are proving very popular, especially with whiskey enthusiasts. Midleton Distillery offers a truly sensorial experience where you can see, hear, feel and smell a live distillery in action.”
The Jameson Experience in Dublin recently closed for a renovation, and while their new tour is all singing, all dancing, Midleton offers an insight into the processes of whiskey making: “The main difference between the two sites is that our Bow St. team focus primarily on Jameson Whiskey whilst my team here in Midleton explore all our whiskey brands – Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, the Spot Range, Midleton Very Rare and the newly launched, Method & Madness.
“My opposite number at the Jameson Distillery Bow St. operates several great tours of varying duration and intensity so, whether you’re new to the world of whiskey, a connoisseur or a budding cocktail maker, they have an experience for you.
“Here at Midleton Distillery we also provide a range of tour experiences such as the Jameson Experience, the Behind the Scenes tour, and the Academy Experience. All are great fun and offer visitors wonderful insights into some of Ireland’s historic whiskey brands.”
The Irish Whiskey Association is pushing whiskey tourism here, and recently held the launch of their southern whiskey tourism plan in Midleton: “Ireland has great potential to become a world class destination for whiskey tourism. As the Irish whiskey industry grows, we’ve welcomed many visitors from new and established distillery attractions who are keen to learn what we do and how we do it. Irish Distillers have been operating whiskey visitor centres for over 30 years so we have plenty of experience to share. We don’t see other distilleries as competition, which of course they are, but, as one of the guardians of the Irish Whiskey industry we’re delighted to help in any way we can.
“At Midleton Distillery we’re ready to welcome anyone who would like to improve the whiskey tourism product. We have tough competition from our friends in Scotland but if the whiskey players in Ireland work together we can offer an amazing experience.”
Peregrina also works closely with the local Chamber in Midleton: “An effective Chamber of Commerce can make a significant difference to a town and we’re blessed to have such a great team here in Midleton.
“Midleton town has been home to whiskey distilling since 1825 and is our priority to work with and support the local community as much as possible. We do everything we can to make sure more people come to Midleton and leave with lovely memories that will last a lifetime.”
The bluebell flower blooms in spring of each year. Usually located on the forest floor, they burst into life as the first rays of a brighter sun touch on them, after its long absence during the winter months. Their bulbous, indigo flowers are a sign that brighter days are coming.
Opening a business in the teeth of the worst recession in Irish history would have been a brave move for any business person. But to open a gift shop in a small town in east Cork seems like absolute madness. However, seven years on and Hazell Abbott’s compact and bijou Bluebells on Midleton’s Main Street is still going strong. Of course, the success of the store isn’t just it’s selection of interesting gift ideas, but in Abbott’s background as an accountant. However, even she admits that it was a crazy idea: “I opened up at the worst time,” she laughs, “everyone thought I was totally mad.”
From Offaly originally, her husband hails from Barryroe in west Cork, so when it came to them leaving Dublin, the chose to head south. She had planned to open a gift shop for several years, but location would be key. She and her husband – who is also an accountant – went on a reconnaissance mission to towns around Cork to find the perfect blend of a good space at a good price – and a good buzz about the place. They settled on Midleton, citing the atmosphere, the large hinterland and the fact that while other towns struggled over the last 20 years, Midleton has thrived. It is a wealthy town. After a successful few years, she expanded the shop to the rear, and took on two staff so she could spend more time with her husband and their two year old son.
While her business shifts into top gear from here to January, it is more than just a seasonal outlet – as she notes, there are always gifts needed for wedding, anniversaries, new babies and birthdays. But at this time of year her shop is busier than ever, with its selection of bric a brac and miscellania – a selection that Hazel spends some time choosing, ensuring that her offerings are not widely available in the town, dropping lines that are carried elsewhere. But at this time of year her shop is a godsend for anyone looking for that just-so item, the little thing that you haven’t seen anywhere else, that most elusive thing – the ideal Christmas gift.
Hermann Jónasson was a famously hot-blooded Icelandic politician who famously once slapped a member of an opposition party. Despite this, he is remembered as one of his country’s great politicians, which is perhaps why Malcolm Walker, a British businessman, decided to pay tribute to Jónasson – a family friend of the Walkers – when he opened his new supermarket chain. That was back in 1970, and now almost half a century later, the chain is going from strength to strength. Almost from day one the focus was on freezer food – and it upon this rock that they built their church.
Iceland initially came to Ireland in 1996, but withdrew in 2005, only to return in 2008. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, with their 18th store in the Republic opening in Shannon next month. This flurry of store openings was the result of a €12 million investment in nine new stores in Ireland this year alone. Some 270 new jobs were created across the country as part of the investment in the new stores in Tallaght, Galway, Cork (Douglas, Fermoy, Ballincollig) Letterkenny, Limerick, Shannon, and Gorey.
Ron Metcalfe, Managing Director of Iceland Ireland said “We have been back in Ireland for four years now and have been committed to expansion from day one. This new investment sees 2017 as our biggest year yet with our nine new stores opening. We’re looking forward to bringing great value and a brand customers can trust to Tallaght, Galway, and across the country this year, as well as welcoming new team members to the Iceland family. And as always, we’re looking forward to expanding and delivering the Power of Frozen to more Irish customers than ever before”.
The Midleton store opened in 2014, and brought a much-needed boost to Distillery Lanes, a Celtic Tiger era development at the east end of the town. Since then the store has thrived, offering a unique food offering to shoppers who flock there from across Munster. Iceland is home to over 2,000 branded fresh and frozen grocery products, and supports Irish with more than 32 local suppliers – in addition to being the exclusive stockist of the Slimming World range in Ireland. Iceland Midleton even offers a home delivery service, while Iceland was also the first UK supermarket to remove artificial flavourings, colouring, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and non-essential preservatives from its own branded products in 1986. In 1990 Iceland took the lead in banning mechanically recovering meat (MRM) from own brand products; and in 1998 Iceland became the world’s first national food retailer to ban genetically modified (GM) ingredients from own brand products.
Iceland has thrown off the old stigma of convenience foods, and is now a one-stop shop for the party season and beyond. With a recovering economy and the festive season ahead, it looks like Iceland are heading into their biggest Christmas yet, while the brand has come full circle in recent years by opening an outlet in Iceland itself. Hermann Jónasson would be proud.
We got to Heuston Station as the last train pulled out. It was only going as far as Portlaoise, so even if we had made it, we would still have had quite a walk back to Cork.
My daughter and I were in Dublin for a hospital appointment, one that only got cancelled at 10pm the night before, when we were already in the city. This meant we were trapped in the big smoke, with the worst storm in four decades bearing down on us. So we decided to go shopping.
Back in Dublin city centre it soon became clear that this was not going to be an option – almost everywhere was pulling down the shutters as we walked around, first across O’Connell Street and then up to Grafton Street. Despite the warnings that Ireland was about to get hit with a bone fide hurricane (bear in mind that the last tropical occurrence here were those really racist Lilt ads in the early Nineties), the weather was pleasantly mild, if a little breezy. But hell or high water wouldn’t keep me from the one place I always visit when in Dublin – the Celtic Whiskey Shop. I had assumed they wouldn’t be open, but, as their owner is a canny Scot who is used to actual storms, he opened. This was a godsend, as whiskey does technically fall under the remit of ‘provisions’ in any major Irish emergency.
So despite the weary groans from my teenage daughter, we ambled in to soak up the ambiance, and by ambience I naturally mean booze.
I tend to complain about the price of Irish whiskey. This is largely due to the fact that I don’t have a huge amount of disposable income, so the prices of Irish whiskey sometimes make me despair. As a result, I usually shop online and mostly buy Scotch. This is partly because of the value you get, and also the sheer variety. But what you don’t get is the enjoyment of talking to a salesperson, especially ones as expert as the staff in the Celtic Whiskey Shop. It’s little wonder that many of their staff go on to work as brand ambassadors, as they know their stuff, they know how to treat customers well, and they are a genial bunch.
As soon as we started chatting, a sample was offered, to warm the blood after braving the unseasonably mild weather outside. But this wasn’t going to be a drop of whatever was on special – they went straight for a Midleton single cask. After that – and an hour long conversation about Irish whiskey, Jim Murray, transparency, online vs offline shopping, and beef – I basically had to buy something. I asked for something interesting, so they gave me a drop of the new Teeling Brabazon port cask.
The Teeling story is a remarkable one. John Teeling was a teetotaller and serial entrepreneur who had the barmy idea of buying an old, state-owned industrial distillery and using it to make whiskey for third party sales. Looking back now, more than two decades on, it seems visionary, but I would imagine that at the time it seemed quite batshit. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he played it hard and fast, ending up at loggerheads with Irish Distillers on at least one occasion, but in the end he created an empire, one that he sold to Beam Suntory for €71m in 2011.
John Teeling’s boundless energy meant he was never going to stay still – he bought the old Harp brewery in Dundalk and turned it into a distilling powerhouse, again using the third party model that had brought him so much success in Cooley. But his sons went for a riskier, bolder model.
Jack and Stephen Teeling may be the dauphins of Irish whiskey, but they also came burdened with their father’s impressive legacy. However, there are few people in Ireland today with their insight or expertise in building a successful whiskey business. A sign of this confidence was where they opted to site their new distillery – in Dublin city’s Newmarket Square.
After this brave move, there was the pressure to source quality stock – and this is where I am going to engage in some wild speculation. I would suggest that, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t hang on to a load of Cooley stock. Beam Suntory didn’t pay seventy million clams just for Cooley, Ireland’s ugliest distillery (they also got one of Ireland’s prettiest distilleries, Kilbeggan) and zero stock. When you pay that much for a distillery, you are not just looking for infrastructure, you are looking for booze – and lots of it.
*** NO REPRODUCTION FEE *** 29/01/2014 : Reviving the Spirit of Dublin – 10m Investment to create over 30 new jobs in Dublins Liberties. Teeling Whiskey Company announces plans for new Dublin whiskey distillery. Visitor Centre to attract 100,000 visitors per annum. Pictured at the new Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) whiskey distillery announcement was model Sarah Morrissey with Stephen Teeling, Sales and Marketing Director and Jack Teeling Managing Director of the Teeling Whiskey Company. The Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) has announced plans for a new whiskey distillery to be located in Dublins Newmarket Square in The Liberties, Dublin 8. This will be the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years and brings the Teelings home to their ancestral roots. The Teeling Whiskey Distillery will start production in the fourth quarter of 2014 with the visitor centre opening its doors in early 2015, investing 10million into The Liberties based location and creating at least 30 full time jobs. The distillery will also see 50 jobs created in the construction phase. The Teeling Whiskey brand is already on sale in Ireland and over 18 export markets. The construction of the new distillery will guarantee future supply for the Teeling Whiskey brands and allow the creation of a range of innovative and authentic Irish whiskeys based on the traditional and unique Dublin style of distillation. The proposed new Pot Still distillery will have the capacity to produce 500,000 litres of whiskey on an annual basis and will consist of three traditional copper Pot Stills reviving the traditional style of the old Dublin distilleries. Plans for the Teeling Whiskey Distillery and visitors centre were welcomed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD. The centre expects to welcome 40,000-50,000 through the doors in year one, increasing to 100,000 thereafter. Picture Conor McCabe Photographgy. For more information, please contact: Padraic Cribben 08
*** NO REPRODUCTION FEE *** 29/01/2014 : Reviving the Spirit of Dublin – 10m Investment to create over 30 new jobs in Dublins Liberties. Teeling Whiskey Company announces plans for new Dublin whiskey distillery. Visitor Centre to attract 100,000 visitors per annum. Pictured at the new Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) whiskey distillery announcement was model Sarah Morrissey. The Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) has announced plans for a new whiskey distillery to be located in Dublins Newmarket Square in The Liberties, Dublin 8. This will be the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years and brings the Teelings home to their ancestral roots. The Teeling Whiskey Distillery will start production in the fourth quarter of 2014 with the visitor centre opening its doors in early 2015, investing 10million into The Liberties based location and creating at least 30 full time jobs. The distillery will also see 50 jobs created in the construction phase. The Teeling Whiskey brand is already on sale in Ireland and over 18 export markets. The construction of the new distillery will guarantee future supply for the Teeling Whiskey brands and allow the creation of a range of innovative and authentic Irish whiskeys based on the traditional and unique Dublin style of distillation. The proposed new Pot Still distillery will have the capacity to produce 500,000 litres of whiskey on an annual basis and will consist of three traditional copper Pot Stills reviving the traditional style of the old Dublin distilleries. Plans for the Teeling Whiskey Distillery and visitors centre were welcomed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD. The centre expects to welcome 40,000-50,000 through the doors in year one, increasing to 100,000 thereafter. Picture Conor McCabe Photographgy.
Similarly, if you are selling a distillery and tons of stock, you are selling it at a good price, so you are not going to get some sort of budget buy-back deal. So while there is a theory out there that all three Teelings walked away from that deal with a cartload of premium casks, it is highly unlikely. As one pundit put it to me, that would be like selling someone a car with no engine.
While the grain the Teelings use may be from Cooley (as with all things supply related, a lot of this is guesswork) it would appear their other source is Bushmills, a distillery that seems to be able to supply vast quantities of excellent whiskey to just about anyone but themselves. The Teelings’ Vintage Reserve releases would certainly suggest Bushmills, as some of those bottlings are older than Cooley Distillery itself.
But back to their sourced releases, which rarely disappoint – their first being a blend that was, and still is, one of the great bang-for-your-buck whiskeys out there. My first bottle of it came with a ringing endorsement from the Celtic Whiskey Shop a few years ago, and it is still one I would rank up there with Writers Tears as a great introduction to the ever expanding world of Irish whiskey.
So the Teelings have it all – the supply, the distillery, the know-how, a partnership with Bacardi that opens new channels across the globe; and they even had their own TV show, which I think makes them the Kardashians of Irish whiskey.
Their sourced releases were varying degrees of excellent – here are some of the mainstream releases, not including the single casks and obscure releases:
Core Trinity Range:
Vintage Reserve Collection:
Vol V (pending released 2018)
Airport Exclusives x c.10
Poitín (from their own distillery in Dublin):
Teeling Spirit of Dublin
The Teeling brothers are looking at an Autumn 2018 date for their own stock, which will be the first new whiskey out of Dublin in quite some time, so the furore then will possibly be even more annoying than when the Dubs win the All-Ireland.
But back to Brabazon II: I asked Gabriel Corcoran from Teeling to shed a little light on the components: “There is a significant portion of white port, of a similar profile to the Carcavelos single cask release, but balanced out with a ruby port backbone and some added depth from a tawny port-finished element.”
The complete breakdown is as follows:
So on to some confusing and wildly inaccurate tasting notes:
Nose: Going to set a high bar for pretentiousness early on by saying ‘a forest in winter’ – vegetal notes, pine, an outdoorsy freshness, although that may just be the alcohol vapors freezing my face. Red liquorice, slight acetone, camphor. Less of the heavy fruit notes I expected to get from so much port cask, but then I haven’t a clue what port tastes like as I am not a feudal lord.
Palate: Fucking hell that 49.5% hits you in the goddam throat – in a good way. Lots of aniseed, ouzo, real heavy warming sensations, Benylin, the stewed fruits coming through. Hierbas, the Mallorcan liqueur,
Finish: Dark chocolate, coffee, going to say tannic dryness even though I’m not entirely certain what that means. Cornflakes, for some bizarre reason. Hints of peppermint in the aftermath, pink peppercorns, metallic notes, and those juicy, sweet notes of the fruit.
Overall, a solid release. Could it be a little better priced? Yes, it could. At close to €80, this is more expensive than the Tyrconnell 12 Madeira cask, which they used to make in Cooley, and which is one of the greats of Irish whiskey. But as with anything, this is completely subjective – bear in mind that after tax, I get paid about €80 a day, and as I work hard, it needs to be a pretty decent whiskey to justify that spend. Still, as a memento of an odd day wandering a deserted Dublin waiting for the hurricane, it was a worthwhile buy. My thanks to the guys in the Celtic Whiskey Shop for just being open, but especially to Dave Cummins, who was fantastic company, even managing to get my daughter chatting about whiskey, a topic she hates as it is ‘boring’. I mean yeah, it is totally boring, until you’re old enough to drink the stuff. But for her, that day is a long way off…he said hopefully.
In 2013, Barry Crockett retired from his role as master distiller in Midleton. His father Max was master distiller before him, and the family lived in the distiller’s cottage on the grounds. It was in this house that Barry was born. It was an old way of life in distilling, one that just doesn’t exist any more.
To mark Barry’s retirement, a local freesheet named The Cork News spoke to him about the change that was coming in his life and how he felt about it. The interview was conducted by the fantastically talented Maria Tracey, who sadly later left journalism for PR. The paper she wrote it for is no more. Their website was still active until recently, but now that too is gone. So here, for posterity, is the interview. Obviously, I have absolutely no claim to this, as it is not my work, nor do I have any copyright over it, but it’s an excellent piece worth preserving on some platform.
“I wake up at about 6.30am, and my first thought is usually influenced by whatever the news headlines were the previous evening. I wonder what has changed overnight, in terms of world news, and turn on the radio to listen to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.
A rushed breakfast normally involved cranberry or orange juice and two slices of toast with ham, tomatoes or bananas. It’s never anything too dramatic. I then head to the Midleton Distillery, where I’m head distiller, and get on with all the normal things that one does when they go to work in the morning.
It might seem unusual for those outside looking in that I was literally born into the job. When my father, Max left school, he was offered a position in the Watercourse Distillery in Blackpool and was eventually promoted to Midleton around 1945. He became master distiller and I was born at the Distiller’s Cottage where the old distillery is now.
Looking back, as a child I can remember being around the garden and seeing people coming and going. I remember the horses, one of my earliest memories. At the time, as was the case in Cork city, horses were widely used for transporting materials. There were several in Midleton hauling very heavy carts, just like the horses in the Budweiser ads.
I’ve spent all my life here, but for me, that’s not strange. As a child you accept these things and it’s only with hindsight that you can really evaluate it. Back then, in professions like banking or medicine, it was quite normal for a father to be a bank manager or doctor, and their son afterwards. And so becoming a distiller was a path for me. It wasn’t exactly cast in stone but more of an ‘open door’. I could have done other things but distilling was the way it ended up. If that hadn’t been the case, I was always particularly interested in history so maybe the teaching profession was a route I could have taken.
Every morning I receive a report on what has happened over the previous 12 or 14 hours, as the distillery is a seven-day week, round-the-clock operation. We have a quality meeting, which involves a wider group of people, and of course, part of the head distiller’s job is to assess quality.
The journey of the whiskey starts with the harvesting of the barley in the autumn. It’s all sourced within a 35-mile radius of the distillery but we don’t buy barley directly from farmers anymore, as the volumes are too large. Instead merchants assemble it to our specifications and if we are happy with it, then we will arrange to purchase the stock for the brewing process. The barley is malted and we effectively produce a type of beer that we describe as a ‘wash’, with an alcohol content of 10%.
Then there is the triple distillation sequence. You fill a very large, onion-shaped copper vessel- and when I say large, I mean very large, with a capacity of 750 hectolitres, or about 17,500 gallons- and apply heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water so by boiling the wash at around 80°C the alcohol vapours rise out of the neck of the still and through a condenser to return back into a liquid. It is then distilled a second time and ultimately a third time until you have a spirit with the strength of 84% left.
Maturation follows and the alcohol is reduced in strength by the addition of water, which is filled into a number of different types of oak barrels. Of course, by law, whiskey has to be matured for a minimum of three years. In most cases it would be way more. It’s a long-term investment where whiskey’s involved.
During the day, each batch of new spirit is assessed. We produce around 100,000 litres of pure alcohol every 24 hours, so it’s a big operation that’s going to become an awful lot bigger- doubling to 200,000- with the expansion.
Another important aspect of the job is that following maturation, we send tankers of finished whiskey to our bottling facilities in Dublin and we have a tasting exercise set up so nothing leaves the plant until it passes quality control. After that is taken care of, there is administration work to follow up on, and meetings about ongoing engineering work.
It’s all extremely exciting. In my career I’ve seen three separate distilleries being started, which is unusual. There was an expansion at the old distillery back in the late 60s, when I just started working here. And then there was the major expansion in the mid to late 70s and now, of course, there is a whole new development with innovative techniques like energy efficient column stills.
I am stepping back from it. You don’t walk into a job like this and take it over overnight. So, when I retire my colleague, Brian Nation, who has been working with us for years, will be taking over from me. It’s an appropriate time for me to go, as I’m passing on the baton to a younger generation. The fact that the industry is so long-lived is fantastic, you can see generations and generations carrying on and developing the business.
The techniques we use have been tried and tested. What each era brings is a small improvement overall with better technology. What we are distilling today won’t appear in the form of whiskey until 20 years time and while I certainly hope that I’ll be around in 20 years time, the industry will obviously have evolved. We sometimes say we are just tenants or custodians for a brief period of time, before handing it on.
I know my father could never have imagined the success of Jameson. It’s a remarkable story as the Irish distillery industry was in quite a weakened state in the early 60s. The pooling of interests by a rather enlightened group of directors to form the Irish Distilleries Group and the decision to export outside of Ireland followed by the taking on of the Group by Pernod Ricard in the 80s has seen annual case sales of Jameson going from 450,000 to four million cases per annum. That is quite remarkable.
For lunch, I usually eat in the canteen. They have a very good selection there, like roast beef or curry with rice and chips. I also have a few cups of tea throughout the day.
After lunch, I may have to meet with a barley supplier on the prospects for the forthcoming harvest. Commodities are highly volatile in terms of price levels and we have to predict the cost so we can budget for it. Nothing happens without the money there!
The end of the day is about assessing what happened over the previous hours and looking ahead to what will happen over the coming night. I finish up around 5.30pm and may have a dinner to go to or a conference. If I head home, my wife Bridget and I have tea at around 7pm. I can’t eat too much at night, just a salad. I don’t want to have two dinners in one day.
To be honest, I prefer to be out a lot of time if I can manage it. I’m a member of different clubs like the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve always liked hill walking as well but I haven’t been doing a lot of that recently, so maybe I’ll have more time in the future. I also have a strong interest in sailing but last summer was disastrous!
With it being winter, we’ve been to a plethora of films over the last month, like Argo and Lincoln. In the evenings, I usually read the newspapers after tea, because I don’t have time during the day. I would be a whiskey drinker- not at work obviously- but more for relaxation. Not on a regular basis, but if there are events that I have to attend, then I will have a glass there.
Looking back, being appointed head distiller in 1981 was a defining time for me. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in terms of how things have developed. What is totally unexpected is the Lifetime Achievement award by the Whisky Advocate magazine that I picked up and will be presented with in October. I must say it is something quite amazing as it’s the first time an Irish man has been chosen.
Retiring on Monday, March 18th, might seem like it’s linked to St Patrick’s Day but it’s actually my birthday, my 65th to be precise. So as it’s a public holiday, I’ll probably finish the Friday beforehand. Honestly, I think that will be my real defining moment. It will not be the end or a descent into aimless nothingness. It’s, as I like to describe it, the beginning of my new career.”
When I joined Twitter three years ago, I struggled to come up with a handle. I opted for @Midleton_Rare, as I am A) from Midleton and B) a whiskey fan. When I started this blog I thought it a good idea to unify my ‘brand’ by having MidletonRared as the domain.
Anyway, both the Twitter handle and blog name led to some confusion, with a few individuals mistakenly believing that I worked for Irish Distillers, despite the fact that I am openly critical of them and clearly know nothing about whiskey. Whilst I applied for many jobs in Midleton Distillery over the years – just about anything from distillery cat to master distiller – I have zero affiliation with IDL, apart from liking their work and having a sense of local pride. Yet the perception persists – most recently it reared its head in the comments section of the Hyde piece, prompting me to change both my Twitter handle and blog title, just in time for IDL to rebrand and relaunch the 2017 expression of Midleton Very Rare with its very own online presence.
They also have a lovely website over at MidletonVeryRare.com and last night held a shindig in one of the warehouses here in Midleton to launch MVR 2017 and their new super-deluxe cask offerings:
The Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Selecting a cask of Midleton Very Rare whiskey is a truly unique experience. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required.
The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. Thirty casks have been made available at launch, with prices available on request.
By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world.
Jean Christophe-Coutures, Chairman and CEO at Irish Distillers, commented: “Irish Distillers introduced the world to luxury Irish whiskey back in 1984 and Midleton Very Rare has since become the embodiment for exceptional quality, craftsmanship and collectability. The unveiling of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club and the new Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release heralds a new era for luxury Irish whiskey and is testament to the growing demand for our finest, prestige Irish whiskeys around the world. We are proud of our position as long-standing guardians of our sector and we look forward to welcoming new additions to the Midleton Very Rare range in the years to come. Today’s launch allows Midleton Very Rare to further build upon its position as the pinnacle of Irish whiskey.”
Just two Master Distillers have had the privilege of preserving the legacy of Midleton Very Rare with only a select number of casks deemed of sufficient excellence and rarity to bear the Midleton Very Rare name. Midleton Very Rare 2017 has been specially blended from a hand selected batch of ex-Bourbon Barrels ranging in age from 12 years to 32 years. The 2017 edition also marks a redesign for the brand, featuring a unique bottle design and presentation box that further completes the overall Midleton Rare experience and better reflects the quality and rarity of the whiskey inside. The elegant bottle takes inspiration from a writer’s ink well and a soft dip in the shoulder echoes the nib of a pen, creating a subtle link to Ireland’s literary legacy.
Speaking about Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release 2017, Master Distiller, Brian Nation commented: “It has been a privilege for me to continue the legacy of Midleton Very Rare that Barry Crockett started in 1984. Midleton Very Rare is rightfully regarded as the pinnacle of Irish whiskey with each vintage cherished by collectors and whiskey enthusiasts all over the world. Due to the handcrafted nature of this whiskey, there are slight variances in taste from year to year which add to the special nature of this whiskey. The 2017 cask selection includes some 32-year-old Midleton Grain Whiskey which will contribute the lighter floral perfume notes along with some citrus fruit. A 26-year-old Single Pot Still whiskey has also been selected, which delivers a wide spectrum of typical spice character, such as sweet cinnamon and clove.”
Bottled at 40% ABV and without chill-filtration, the new-look Midleton Very Rare Vintage Release 2017 is available from this month at the RRP of €180 and is available in the USA, Canada, Ireland and Ireland Travel Retail.
Matt Healy has a great post on the history of Midleton Very Rare, one of the most recognisable premium Irish whiskeys – it even got a mention in Peter Kelly’s excellent book on the last days of Ireland financial Gomorrah, Breakfast With Anglo.
One of the sad side effects of being such a well-known luxury spirit is that it does attract a lot of gauche idiots – the ‘it’s the most expensive and therefore the best’ brigade. If I was recommending a premium Irish whiskey for drinking rather than investing, I’d always direct towards Dair Ghaelach or Redbreast 21, but MVR persists in the minds as the best Irish whiskey. It isn’t, and while I don’t like dissing blends, it is one, albeit a very expensive one.
How the collectors will take the 2017 makeover remains to be seen, but it certainly is a sign of confidence on the part of IDL to change a collectable this much. Here are the ones that went before:
And here is 2017:
Despite the makeover, and despite the price, I’ve no doubt it will sell – being an annual release makes it a great gift to mark births, weddings, or the collapse of a business empire. As for the contents, Michael Foggarty of L Mulligan Grocer was at the launch last night, and tweeted this:
MVR 2017 13-32 year old whiskeys in it, 26 yo pot still, 32 yo grain, 214 casks, 8000 cases, it's a lovely drop pic.twitter.com/2d3FHmUy3W
A total of 30 casks are on sale, with a spokesperson for Irish Distillers confirming to just-drinks that they will cost between EUR75,000 (US$88,025) and EUR450,000, depending on age and type.
Perhaps one of the rarer sights on the night was Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett, a man steeped in whiskey lore – born in the distiller’s cottage, his father Max was master distiller before him, and it is Barry who is credited with a lot of the success of Irish whiskey today, particularly in the resuscitation of the pot still whiskey category.
Barry is part of the old world of whiskey – modern master distillers tend to be PR savvy, smooth operators; Barry is just this quiet, unassuming chap who likes history, reading and sailing, and also just happens to be one of the saviours of Irish whiskey. I’ve no doubt that as the category goes from strength to strength, the success of the Midleton Very Rare series will be a lasting legacy of his vision and skill.
Week 15 of the column, and somehow it still is a thing that exists:
Few things in this world escape the oily touch of gender politics – not even our precious booze. From the manly pint of Guinness to the ladylike bottle of West Coast Cooler, marketing firms have yet to fully retract their tentacles from our brands. But of all drinks, whiskey is one that still struggles to free itself from the suffocating quicksand of masculinity.
In the post-war era came to be entwined with notions of manliness, a fact that hasn’t served the diversity of the whiskey scene well. It was a thought that came to mind when reading a blog post by whiskey bonder Louise McGuane about her time working as a brand ambassador for global spirits firms. It makes for grim reading as she recounts several instances of harassment, including one deranged Carry On style incident, with a sales rep in a bathrobe appearing at her second storey hotel window, clawing at the glass like one of the vampires in Salem’s Lot. Awful as the stories are, the saddest part is her admittance that she making a complaint about these people would have hurt her career. So she did what many women did, and simply put up with it.
Her post was actually written to celebrate the fact that she has just hired a new ambassador for her Chapel Gate whiskey brand (bringing her staff number to two, including herself). She expressed the hope that the world – and the whiskey scene – is a better place now, and her employee won’t have to navigate the obstacle course of sexual harassment that she had to. And besides, one would hope that the omens for her whiskey are good, given that her ambassador (above) is named after St Blaise – the patron saint of maladies of the throat.
One person currently experiencing bad omens is the engineer at Google who wrote a lengthy screed that was ostensibly about why men are better than women. He went into a lot more detail than that, and used a lot of big words and overwrought sentences, but ultimately his message about women in tech was the same as Ron Burgundy’s newsteam when they heard there was going to be a woman reading the news: It’s anchorman, not anchorlady.
The man who wrote the manifesto – it’s always a man, which is why it’s not called a womanifesto – has fallen back on that classic excuse of wanting to ‘open an honest discussion’ about ‘left leaning bias’. Sadly it seems like he will be the one left leaning, as he has been fired, and will spend a while thinking about how superior he is whilst signing on.
You know who has no gender? The faerie folk. They are mercifully free from genitalia, and thus have much more time to spend on lengthy excavation projects that undermine local infrastructure. It was pleasing to see John B Keane character made flesh Danny Healy Rae speaking out about the gentle folk and how they are causing subsidence in a Kerry road. Previously known for thinking Noah’s Ark was an actual thing that happened, or that a big dinner affects your driving in the same manner as a pint or two, you can’t but feel that maybe everything he says is a gloriously postmodern prank. Given that his haulage firm has been paid more than eight million euro in State contracts, someone has to be laughing all the way to the bank with their pot of gold.
From the faerie folk to the gods; the Perseid meteor shower is due to light up the skies this weekend. As we spend more and more time staring down at our phones – even while driving – it is good to sometimes look up and be amazed at the wonders of space, or just to look up so you don’t rear-end a schoolbus.
On Friday and Saturday night, the shower will hit its peak. It is worth looking up and remembering that human beings and our galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms – we are mostly stars. As the meteors skim across our atmosphere and disappear in a blaze of glory, take a moment to think about how futile it is to live on this little planet with meaningless divisions like race, or gender, or religion, as one day we too will burn out. And if it gets too cold while you’re out there stargazing and musing about the future of humanity, you can always warm up with a drop of whiskey.
I wrote a couple of pieces for the Irish Examiner Food & Drink supplement; one about innovation in food and drink, and one on (of all things) whiskey.
And would you believe I didn’t get any free booze for doing this? Shocking. WTF is journalism coming to? Anyway, here you go:
Brewing up a storm
Our forty shades of green are more than just a tourism slogan – they are also a sign of just how strong agriculture is in this country. Whiskey sales may be rocketing, but our craft beer scene is also getting stronger, with a plethora of new brands coming on stream every month – to the point that many of the brewing giants are trying to cash in and creating ‘craft’ styled brands. When the titans of industry are getting rattled, you know a revolution is taking place.
It has been 21 years since the late Oliver Hughes and his cousin Liam LaHart opened the Porterhouse in Temple Bar, and while the concept seemed alien at the time in a country where you drank one of three lagers or one of three stouts, the modern boom shows just what a thirst there was for change. A Bord Bia report released last year highlighted this, pointing out that there is an estimated 90 microbreweries operating in the Republic of Ireland, of which 62 are production microbreweries and at least 28 are contracting companies. There was a 29% increase in the number of production microbreweries from 48 in 2015 to 62 in 2016. The number of microbreweries has more than quadrupled since 2012.
As the scene grows, so does innovation in the category. Munster Brewery in Youghal is one example. Last year the brewers, twins Padraig and Adrian Hyde, released 12 Towers, Ireland’s first certified organic beer. They also signed up to a green earth initiative: “We’ve delighted to say we’ve just signed up to the Climate Neutral Now programme, where we promise to reduce emissions and offset any unavoidable ones by buying carbon credits. It’s an extra expense we don’t really need but one we’re happy to pay. We’ve gone and committed the entire brewery to the Climate Neutral Now programme so we’re busy as bees monitoring energy usage and fuel.”
Apart from making their beers more earth and body friendly, they also make the ancient health drink kombucha under their HOLO (holistic and organic) brand. While they also offer tours, they are frustrated by the licensing laws, which prohibit small brewers and distillers from selling direct to customers. They can sell huge amount wholesale, but not a few bottles to a tourist – an issue for any potential drinks tourism.
Innovation is integral to the drinks category – and with the explosion in craft breweries and distilleries comes new ideas. Perhaps one of the biggest success stories in drinks innovation here is Baileys, the first of the now ubiquitous Irish creams. A collision of two forms of famring – tillage (barley for whiskey) and dairy (the cream), it was dreamed up by David Dand in Dublin in 1974. Legend has it that it was first created using a simple mixer (blending cream and whiskey takes a bit more science than that), it now sells 6.4m cases year, or 80m bottles – more than the entire Irish whiskey industry combined. Every three secs someone, somewhere in the world is having a Baileys. The brand has also expanded to include Baileys Gold, Baileys Chocolat Luxe, and flavours Biscotti, Vanilla-Cinnamon, Pumpkin Spice, Espresso and Salted Caramel. Each year, 38,000 Irish dairy cows produce more than 220 million litres of fresh cream specifically for the creation of Baileys.
The success has prompted other entrants to the category, with Cremór,Kerrygold, Carolans, Molly’s, Brogans, Saint Brendan’s and Coole Swan all doing a booming trade.
Kerrygold Irish cream is produced by the Ornua group, which recently released booming stats. As Ireland’s largest exporter of primary Irish dairy products, they delivered a strong trading performance in 2016, with turnover up by 9% to €1.75 billion – a figure all the more remarkable when you consider that this performance was achieved in a year of volatile milk prices and political uncertainty in some of their key markets. The global giant’s ambition is to move Kerrygold from being a world-class butter brand to an instantly recognisable €1 billion global dairy brand in the coming years. 2016 saw the successful launch of Kerrygold Yogurts in Germany, Kerrygold Spreadable in the UK and the continued roll-out of Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur across Europe and the US.
Ireland’s strength in the export of food and drink products is also reflected in the success of the Carbery Group, a global leader in food ingredients, flavours and cheese, headquartered in Ballineen, Cork. Founded in 1965 as a joint venture between four creameries and Express Dairies, UK, Carbery Group is owned by four Irish dairy co-operatives, employ more than 600 people, and manufacture from eight facilities worldwide, including Ireland, UK, USA, Brazil and Thailand. The group has moved far beyond the traditional bedrock of cheese to health and nutritional supplements and flavour creation.
One knock-on from the distilling is the boom in gins, used as a revenue generator by distilleries as their whiskey stocks mature, while the use of local botanical infusions in the gins give them a regional flavour that sets each apart. One of Carbery Group’s success stories in drinks innovation blends the normally disparate worlds of dairy farming and distilling. Originating from Ballyvolane House in Cork, Bertha’s Revenge gin is named after a cow, a tribute befitting an alcoholic beverage distilled from sweet whey, the liquid produced during cheese making. Bertha’s Revenge is distilled with whey alcohol sourced from Carbery and derived from cow’s milk produced by Cork dairy farmers.
Using specially developed yeasts to ferment the milk sugars in the whey, Carbery brew and then double distill the whey in large column stills. Justin Green of Ballyvolane House and his business partner Antony Jackson then distill the 96% proof whey alcohol a third time in their custom-made 125 litre copper stills along with botanicals such as coriander, bitter orange, cardamom, cumin and clove as well as foraged local botanicals such as elderflower and sweet woodruff. The resulting gin has won local and international acclaim since its launch in 2015, and Bertha’s Revenge is now exported to the UK, mainland Europe and even South Korea – and, later this year, to the US, where it just won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2017.
Bertha’s Gin has shown that innovation, experimentation and even the occasional odd idea can get the best out of Ireland’s tradition of agricultural excellence – and proof that those forty shades of green can always keep us in the black.
Distillers of future past
The old adage of ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ may not be true in all fields, but in whiskey it might just be. With a history of distilling dating back to its first mention in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 (the Scots’ earliest mention is 1494), we were the world’s greatest whiskey makers by the late 1800s, with distilleries dotted all over the country. But that changed – a combination of war, pestilence, famine and a simple changing of tastes saw us go into a period of decline that hit a low point in the Seventies and Eighties, with only two distilleries left on the island of Ireland – Bushmills and Midleton. We were an also ran in the world whiskey scene, with our neighbours the Scots having left us for dust.
Fast forward to the last six years: Through careful marketing – and our old friend ‘changing tastes’ – Jameson has rocketed to the fasted growing spirit brand in the world, and that rising tide of smooth irish liquor has lifted a number of boats, with distilleries popping up all over the country. This is great news for the whiskey fan, but the wider effects will be felt in agriculture and tourism. In the short term, more distilleries means a need for more barley, more maltsters, and thus more employment. In the longer term, it will mean more tourists.
Whisky tourism is worth tens of millions to the Scottish economy – travel across a region like Speyside, where there are 50+ distilleries, and you can see how a coherent strategy has been built around whisky – there is even a walking trail you can take, bringing you through the hills from distillery to distillery. But they have had decades to draw a roadmap for tourism, while here our industry is still in its infancy, with a number of distilleries in operation, in the process of being built, at the planning stage, and some that are still trying to get beyond being a pipe dream.
Dublin has a number of distilleries at various stages – the merchant princes of Irish whiskey, Jack and Stephen Teeling, sons of the legendary John Teeling, who opened Cooley distillery and democratised whiskey by selling it direct to bottlers, have an incredibly slick operation in Newmarket Square. Alltech agrifoods billionaire Pearse Lyons has his eponymous distillery housed inside an old church in the Liberties, while a couple of hundred years down the road the former owners of Bushmills, Diageo are building a distillery within one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland – the Guinness site at St James’s Gate. Also nearby is the Dublin Liberties Distillery, which has recently commenced construction. Meanwhile, the longest serving whiskey tourism hub in Dublin, the Bow Street Jameson Heritage Centre, recently re-opened after a massive €11m overhaul.
But Dublin doesn’t need a selection of distilleries to attract tourists – it is simply another string to the city’s bow. It is the distilleries spread across the country that need to be brought together under one tourism vision.
Outside the Pale, the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton is the biggest whiskey tourism draw that Ireland has right now, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. But what gives Midleton the edge over their Dublin wing is that they have the heritage, the history, and – tucked away behind it all – one of the most modern, efficient distilleries in the world. In recent years Midleton added another attraction – an experimental micro-distillery.
Ignacio Peregrina, General Manager at The Jameson Experience Midleton: “Since we opened in 1992 we have been delighted to welcome over 2.3 million visitors to Midleton. We’re always delighted to bring our heritage to life for new audiences and send people home as strong ambassadors for Irish whiskey. In the last 25 years, we’ve welcomed people from all over the world from Hollywood royalty, Kevin Spacey to Cork royalty, Roy Keane!”
Since opening in 1992 the Midleton centre has welcomed 2.3 million visitors, while last year it hosted 125000. Of the top four countries of origin for visitors, USA made up 25%; Germany 12%; Britain 11% and France 10%.
To the east of Midleton, along the Ancient East, lies Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and home to Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, one of the most impressive operations to set up here in the last five years. With his background (he resurrected Bruichladdich distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, before selling it to Remy Cointreau) he was able to buy an old Guinness brewery, and transform it into a state of the art distillery.
Reynier’s project differs from many others in its dedication to barley – he has been using barley from individual farms to distill individual batches of spirit, meaning you will be able to taste the difference from soil type to soil type, thus proving the concept of terroir. His project is one to watch – and having just secured another 20 million boost from investors, it has no signs of slowing down.
Not far away in the sleepy village of Cappoquin, Peter Mulryan has been creating award winning spirits under his Blackwater Distillery brands. A journalist, author, and whiskey expert, Mulryan is getting ready to move his operation to a larger premises in the nearby village of Ballyduff and, with that, to move to the next stage of his business plan – whiskey tourism.
To the west of Midleton is West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen, and beyond that, Dingle Distillery. Dingle was the vision of the late Oliver Hughes, credited as being the father of craft beer in Ireland after he set up the highly successful Porterhouse chain. Hughes saw opportunity in whiskey too, setting up Dingle before the current boom properly took off. As a result of his foresight, Dingle Distillery single malt is hitting the market at a time when all other whiskeys come from one of the other big three – Midleton, Cooley or Bushmills. Dingle whiskey, much like the town itself, is in a league of its own.
The process of creating whiskey is one of the complications to building an immediate tourism industry around it. First you need to build the distillery, distill your grain, and cask your spirit. Then you wait – while three years is the legal minimum requirement, anything between five and ten years is the accepted minimum for the serious whiskey drinker – and thus, the serious whiskey tourist.
In order to draw tourists here in the same way Scotland draws thousands from across Europe, Ireland will need well-established and well-respected distilleries with quality output. The casual tourist will be happy to visit one distillery on a trip to Ireland, the whiskey tourist will want more than that – they will want distillery exclusives – whereby the distillery sells a particular brand on its own premises and nowhere else – and to be able to visit a number of distilleries in one trip. The Irish Whiskey Association has launched a document laying out its vision for whiskey tourism here, creating a whiskey trail from distillery to distillery so that when the plan comes of age in 2025, there is an accepted route for the discerning whiskey fan.
One thing is for certain – after decades of struggle, Irish whiskey is back with a bang.
So I wrote a bit for the Examiner on the Aroma Academy’s Whisky Nosing Kit, something I had tried to buy on Master Of Malt at Christmas but it sold out. The main piece was on George Dodd, who is a Trinners educated Dub, and head of the Aroma Academy, but this was my lesser contribution:
So you’ve decided to become a whiskey geek. You’ve tried a few brands, learned the lingo (arcane terms like dram, NAS, cask-strength), the science (you know the difference between a washback and a Lyne arm) and the history (the two Aeneases, Coffey and MacDonald), and have even bought a tweed blazer in Penneys so that you look the part. But there is one part of whiskey fandom that is hard to perfect; an innate sense that cannot be trained via literature alone – your sense of smell.
Of all our senses, smell is probably the one we value the least. If forced to pick one to jettison, it is hard to imagine someone binning their ability to see or hear in favour of smell, but it is in its subtlety that its power lies – apart from enabling us to avoid danger, evolutionary biologists suggest that it also helps us recognise family by scent, and thus avoid inbreeding. It should come as little surprise that the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion also processes our sense of smell. How we perceive aromas is often guided by our life experiences. But there are some elements of scent that we can be completely objective about – and whiskey carries many of them. As the most complex spirit in the world, whiskey can be a tough sensory code to crack. How do you train your senses to pick out the key notes? It turns out, much like you can train individual muscles, you can teach your brain to isolate and identify a few of the elements most identified with what should be our national drink.
The Aroma Academy’s Whisky Aroma Kit is a beautifully packaged set ideal for the budding whiskey enthusiast seeking to bone up on their nosing skills, or for the hardcore geek wishing to evangelise friends and family with tutored tastings. Contained within the set are the 24 vials of scent, a helpful book on how to use them, a thorough introduction to Scotch whisky, and some slivers of card that can be used to diffuse the scents, in much the same way perfumeries proffer samples of their wares.
The scents help you understand how the aroma of whisky works – what phenol is, what the experts mean when they suggest there is a whiff of decay, and yet keep on sipping, what a buttery note smells like, how to identify wet peat, solventine, rosewater, or sherry.
The vials themselves are numbered and the list of their actual aromas is contained in the notebook – tutored tastings often see the vials being passed around, with guests being asked to have a guess as to what scent each vial held. It’s a fun way to show how we all perceive reality in completely different ways – could you say for certain that what you think of when someone suggests ‘the smell of cut grass’ would be the exact same as what I think of? And what of the variables – what if you have a slight cold that impedes your sense of smell? The whisky expert Jim Murray – whose annual Whisky Bible reviews thousands of whiskies from all over the world – won’t do any whisky reviews for two weeks after a cold in case it affects his ability to discern elements.
Using the Aroma Academy kit is a great way to tune your senses into the most important elements of whisky, but more than that it gives you the confidence to start proffering opinions on what a whisky smells and tastes like. The 24 scents are some of the key aromatic components, but are also key to ‘talking the whisky talk’. Knowing them is akin to learning scales on the piano before you start rattling out Rachmaninoff. Once you know your phenol from your decay, you can start expanding your vocabulary to include just about anything. A good example of creative tasting notes are those on the bottlings released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They never directly state what distillery the liquid is from, but instead use a tasting panel to describe it. The results are intriguing – and sometimes baffling. Consider this, a whisky released under the title of ‘Irreverent Painter In Church’: “The nose, with the oiled wood of new church pews, exuded peacefulness and earned reverence – it also had dried papaya and mango, marzipan, lemon curd, sherbet and candied angelica. The palate was chewy and satisfying, with spritzy and zesty elements (orange and lemon jellies, tropical fruits), spiced pear and the sweetness of white chocolate and French Fancies. The reduced nose continued the citric theme – lemon sponge-cake, chocolate limes and a painter with a cigarette in one hand and a margarita in the other. The palate was juicy and rewarding, combining tangy fruits and bitter lemon with cola cubes, pear and chocolate.”
With the guidance of the Whisky Aroma Kit, and a little bit of self confidence, soon you too could be drawing furrowed brows and concerned looks from friends as you prance about in a tweed catsuit talking about whiskies as though they were the Sistine Chapel – or a cocktail of paint thinner and altar wine.
First, a death. Aleck Crichton, above, passed away recently at the age of 98, an impressive age for anyone, but especially for someone who led a tank battalion through Normandy in the aftermath of the D-Day landings. Somewhat ominously named after an uncle who died in the Great War, Crichton was badly injured in 1944. Returning home to Ireland, he took up a role in the family business – Jameson. He was part of the team who engineered the merger between the last big distilleries in Ireland, an act which most likely saved our industry from extinction. Part of that difficult transition meant that, in 1984, the decision was made to concentrate on Jameson – a decision that has paid off some three decades later. Richard Burrows, speaking to Ivor Kenny in 2001, noted how this singular focus was difficult because the family members of the original distillers were still on the board: “They paid lip service to marketing – they may sound harsh, but I believe it’s true. Their interest was whether their Jameson, or their Powers, or their Paddy was getting the promotional money.”
Crichton was also chair of the Yeats Society, fitting given that his parents were friends of Yeats’s, a regular visitor to their home on Fitzwilliam Square. Crichton’s memories of Ireland’s Most Emo Nerd were thus: “I would play tag with his children on the square and we were always getting into trouble,” he recalled.
“I don’t remember him ever actually talking to us but he didn’t ignore us either.”
“He always dressed impeccably, always wore a bow tie and silver buckles on his shoes. My father and mother were huge friends and he was often in our home for tea.”
Good old poets – loads of money for shoe buckles, none for buying their own tea.
The foundations laid by Crichton and the rest of the board of IDL are being reaped in the Irish whiskey boom of today – just look at Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, who recently got a rather large chunk of investment cash. Sez the press release:
Phase 1 of our project was the purchase of the Guinness Brewery from Diageo in December 2014 for €7.5m. We then spent €2m during 2015 converting it to a modern distillery; developed a unique barley supply chain; distilled 1m litres of new spirit traceable to 46 farm terroirs by January 2017; and established a bespoke warehouse complex at Ballygarran.
Phase 1 is now complete, on budget and on schedule. The quality of the spirit is first rate supported by both taste and analysis.
We now move to phase II, as outlined in our plan, the total focus of building up stock volumes to 5m litres.
Distilling is an expensive business. And with no revenue stream (deliberately) at this early stage, all the more so.
It is a testament to the strength of the company – the Facilitator, people, shareholders and spirit – that it has secured €20m new funding for Phase II with the investment of €5.8m from BGF (Business Growth Fund) and a €14.4m debt facility with Ulster Bank.
At the same time as the Ulster facility, BGF was invited to make their first investment in an Irish business. We’re delighted to have them aboard.
This €20m funding of whisky stock leads, inevitably, to Phase III, the exciting bit, bringing the whisky to market. Roll out those barrels.
Another snippet of news also came from Waterford Distillery around the same time – the departure of one of the key members of the team. Lisa Ryan had worked on site when it was Diageo’s Guinness brewery, and was head brewer after Reynier took over (her father also supplied some of the barley for their whiskey). So this came as something of a surprise:
Congratulations to Head Brewer Lisa who is joining Walsh Whiskey as distillery manager. We wish her all the best in her exciting new role
Ten years ago you either worked for Cooley, Bushmills or IDL or you didn’t work in distilling. Now we have a growing industry, and a desperate search for staff with experience. Staff being able to move from distillery will be good for the industry and for the category. People will do good things with a brand and get headhunted, and a knowledge economy will be created. So the future is bright – even Diageo are back in the game. They jettisoned Bushmills not long ago and now are building a distillery in their Dublin campus. You can peruse their plans for the St James’s Gate Power House on the DCC site, but here are a few snippets:
There is a really insightful analysis of the move by Louise McGuane here, which explains the smart business of getting rid of one distillery only to build another. Diageo have resurrected the George Roe brand for a sourced blend, presumably from Bushmills, although who knows – with Irish whiskey it’s never exactly crystal clear. The issue of transparency is one that rapidly becoming an unhealthy obsession for me. It’s like Tesco’s fake farms that they use in branding their meat – they say consumers don’t care, and perhaps they are right. But I think that if you stood at the checkout and explained to people that they have no idea where their food came from, and that the shop selling it to them had to invent a place to make that fact seem less unsettling, then they might be less inclined to buy that giant chicken for three euro.
The same goes for whiskey brands – here’s an example of food marketing: This is the pre-release image of The Whistler, a sourced whiskey from Boann Distillery –
And this is what the label actually says:
We can argue semantics all day, but changing from bottled to crafted suggests the hand of marketing. It’s disappointing, not least because I had a few of the Boann whiskeys at Whiskey Live Dublin and thought they had a very strong product. Boann are legitimate distillers who are building a brand while stocks mature – so why bother with the use of the term crafted? It is a weasel word, and the category would be better off without it.
However, it isn’t entirely fair to single Boann out – after all there are other independent bottlers who are using far more misleading tactics – but the entire category is going to have a credibility issue until this sort of behaviour is abandoned. Yes, we only had three distilleries for the last few decades, and yes we have hundreds of brands from those same three sources, all trying to create their own identity – but our image abroad will not improve unless we call a halt to the theatrical flourishes of food marketing firms. There are few sights more depressing than Americans tweeting at independent bottlers to ask them about opening times of their non-existent distilleries – and it is happening. Consumers will end up disillusioned when they discover that the brand they love has endeavored to convince them that their whiskey comes from a distillery that does not exist, and our grand plans for whiskey tourism will be for naught.
And it isn’t just small bottlers sending out confusing signals, the biggest of them all is guilty too, as every bottle of Jameson carries the address of ‘Bow Street, Dublin’ proudly on the label, as though the liquid contained within is actually made there. The liquid is made in Cork, the IDL HQ is in Ballsbridge, and while Bow Street is the tourism HQ, when it comes to the whiskey itself, that address is a phantom limb.
As the interest in Irish whiskey grows worldwide, I am seeing more and more chatter online about the issue of transparency – I don’t want us to be seen as some sort of snake oil tricksters, slinging whiskey distilled in Fidder’s Green by the magical folk, when it all comes from one branch of the holy trinity of Cooley/Midleton/Bushmills. Supply deals may include a privacy clause, but brands can still be more honest – do it in small print on the back label, the geeks will appreciate it and everyone else won’t care enough to read it. The IWA aren’t going to enforce this – one member told me as much when I asked them about false provenance. They told me copyright was basically all they were concerned with right now. It is understandable: The IWA is just an industry body – the consumers’ best interests are not their top priority.
However, I was pleased to see the Irish Whiskey Society are holding a night on this topic soon. Here are the details:
On May 25th, the Irish Whiskey Society will be inviting 8 of the industry’s most vocal movers and shakers for a panel discussion on the liquid identity of our national drink: its making, its labelling, its sales, and its spirit. From startup indies to growing global brands, the panel will include brand builders, critics, distillers, and publicans – for a look at the liquid as its trickling off today.
If there is change, it will be the geeks and the indies who lead it – they understand that if you make transparency and honesty the core of your sales pitch, you can’t go wrong.
There was more good news recently for the orphan of Irish whiskey – Bushmills. I find it frustrating to see this brand languishing as it has, and while I was optimistic that the new owners would bring some fresh thinking, I haven’t seen much evidence yet, from the poorly-received Steamship series to the woefully titled Red Bush. They must have some incredible stock there just waiting for the right treatment – gives us some single barrel, some quality age statements – after all, the place is actually doing quite well:
Northern Ireland’s best-known whiskey maker enjoyed a bumper year in 2015, according to its most-recently filed accounts.
Part of the 18 months in the accounting period covers a period under the ownership of Mexican drinks giant Jose Cuervos, after the sale of Bushmills by Diageo.
The brand’s new owners filed a planning application for a major expansion of the Bushmills facility in a bid to double production capacity. It plans to build a £30m expansion to its current distillery and has now been given permission for the facility which, it says, will “effectively double production capacity”.
It’s also planning to build almost 30 huge warehouses to mature its world-famous Irish whiskey. A strategic report filed with the accounts says its new owners are planning to develop the company through expanding into new markets and increasing sales.
Increase the sales by all means but please increase the quality of the releases while you’re at it. That place deserves to shine.
As titans like Bushmills meander, there are of course numerous challengers approaching. There’s Cape Clear Distillery and the man behind it, Adrian Fitzgibbbon, a financier who was one of the leading lights in the Irish wing of Sachsen LLB. Mr Fitzgibbon initially aimed to set up a distillery and visitors centre on his own property, Horse Island, a small chunk of land about 800 metres off the coast of Skibbereen. Designer Terry Greene, who is behind the neo-celt aesthetic of Barr An Uisce, did some sterling work on the brand:
When that was refused, Mr Fitzgibbon moved his attention to the nearby island of Cape Clear, where the plan has been accepted and is now the funding stage. Here are the plans:
Cape Clear is beautiful, and one would hope that with Fitzgibbon’s background in finance, they will have no trouble whipping up the cash to make it the dream a reality.
Another Cork resident with a background in finance is Michael Scully, a farmer turned property developer, the latter part of which you can read more about here. He is behind the Clonakilty Atlantic Distillery, which is dues to be built within a unit set up for Ulster Bank before the economy tanked. It later became a gaelscoil. Here are some visuals:
There’s also Gortinore, who have plans for the old mill in Kilmacthomas, Tipperary Boutique, who are forging ahead with plans for a grain-to-glass operation near Cahir, Sliabh Liag up in Donegal – there are many planned distilleries and it is going to be interesting to see who makes it to market in five to ten years and who falls by the wayside. It is going to be an interesting decade for Irish whiskey, but my own two cents are thus – all the mentoring in the world isn’t going to ensure integrity. The financial collapse in 2008 showed that there is no ‘invisible hand of the market’ which guides best practise, and that humans will generally do whatever suits them best – even if it means lying to the public. The whiskey business has had a tolerance of subterfuge that needs to be ditched so that we – consumers and producers – hold our heads high and make Irish whiskey great again.