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.
Craft used to mean strength. The original word in German and Scandinavian languages meant power, or might, but it was in Old English that the meaning was expanded to include dexterity or a skill in art or science. Modern use – and abuse – of the term by food marketing firms has led to it becoming almost completely without meaning, but it still resonates. It suggests a more human product, as though somehow machines make soulless goods, and only the touch of a human hand can somehow magically imbue a product with a greater flavour, personality or depth of character.
All over the world, whiskey producers are angling to leverage the word craft to their advantage. Somehow the romance of small firms, individual brands, and the idea of the distilling auteur have embedded in the minds of consumers. But what does craft actually mean? That was the question posed by Alexandre Ricard in late 2014. The CEO of Pernod Ricard said he was struggling with the term, and questioning what defined a craft spirit – was it a question of scale, or of skill? The firm’s more recent explorations of the term included buying Smooth Ambler, thereby buying into two categories they were underexposed in – ‘craft’ spirits and bourbon. But even as he asked the question, Ricard already had plans to explore craft on his firm’s own terms, and on its own ground.
The micro distillery in Midleton opened with much fanfare in late 2015 just as the sales of Jameson really hit their stride, charging past the five million case mark. The micro distillery was a departure for Midleton, bringing operations back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades. It also eschewed automation and digital displays in favour of levers and dials. Since opening, it has served a dual purpose; as a showpiece for the tours of the distillery, and also as an incubation space for experimentation.
The sheer scale of the main plant is breathtaking, but not especially romantic. Its vast size also means that experimentation is a challenge, as any new methods or ingredients would see the company forced to commit to working with large quantities. Great if you have a success, not so much if you create a dud. So the microdistillery has become a breeding ground for experimentation, a fact celebrated recently under the umbrella of the Methods & Madness range. As part of that range’s launch, a select group of whiskey bloggers, journalists, influencers and one clueless local (me) were invited to the Irish Whiskey Academy for a tasting of some of their experiments with Master Distiller Brian Nation.
Like everything in life worth doing, creating new distillates in the microdistillery wasn’t the easiest task, given that the wash is still being made in the main plant, a fact they hope to rectify by building a brewhouse within the microdistillery building: “We’re hopeful – we’re applying in the next year for some form of brewing and it’s a little bit up in the air at the moment whether we try to put a brewing facility up above and send the wash down into the microdistillery, or whether we install a full brewhouse down into the micro,” Nation explains.
“Preferentially we would like to see the brewhouse down there but what it does mean is that you have to bring a lot of grain handling down to the building and that brings its own issues around ATEX and dust zones. We have a building alongside the micro that we need to see if we can house all of that, but that would be the ideal for us.
“Because then you have the whole place compact in one area, you can play around with your cereals – we spoke a little while ago about playing around with different yeast types and you really have the opportunity to explore what is possible from the micro.”
But main plant’s brewhouse is not micro – it is macro.
“That is part of the problem. So you are taking a brew through a mash filter and putting just one or two into a fermenter, but then you have to make sure that you get the wort up above the cooling coils of the fermenter, because if you don’t then you actually kill it all off, so it is actually quite difficult at the moment.
“What we’re doing is to try and use as much of the time available to us without having the brewing capabilities, so hopefully by the end of next year we should have something.
“When we had opportunities in the main plant we tried different cereals, and they are the next whiskeys that we are going to taste. The first thing we’re going to taste is what we were making when we were in the microdistillery this morning, which is a barley and malt mash – about 60% barley and 40% malt.
“If you were to compare it to the pot still distillate that we produce up in the main plant, it has a lot of those characteristics, but for us it tends to have a little bit more character in it, it has a bit more spice and more fruitiness and for me I tend to get a little bit of clove and liquorice coming through it as well. This is at 40%; obviously we run the pot stills down there at 84.4% but we watered it down as we didn’t want to overwhelm you.
“For a new make spirit – and this is coming back to the triple distillation process but also coming back to the use of unmalted barley – you have creaminess on the mouthfeel as well, and I feel it’s good to showcase to people that you get that creaminess in the new spirit as well, it’s not a really harsh whiskey to take, even thought it’s a new distillate.”
Next up was the rye. Typically associated with the northeastern United States, rye whiskey is undergoing a global resurgence after almost completely disappearing during and after Prohibition. A typical rye whiskey will be at least 51% rye, with malted barley and corn. Midleton’s take is slightly different: “So this is a mash bill of rye and malted barley so we effectively replaced the barley with rye and we put it through our batch brewing process above, fermented it and brought it down here where it was distilled.
“It’s typically about 60/40 (rye/malt). What we found from the distillate is that on the nose it seems a harder note coming through it, a little less creamy. You know sometimes the way sometimes when you taste something it brings back a memory rather than a scientific taste? For me this reminds me of some boiled sweets that you used to get – the rhubarb and custard ones. But you can see – this has gone through the same process and it actually is quite different (from the pot still spirit) in taste and flavour, there’s still the spiciness there as well, and for me you tend to get that malty characteristic coming through as well.”
Midleton are obviously keen on this spicy new distillate, as they have committed to another aspect of the craft movement – the idea of grain to glass traceability.
“We’re quite excited about the rye. We have sown a hundred and 60 acres of rye in Enniscorthy – two different types of rye, and that should be harvested in September of this year, and the plan is to use that for distillation. We’re quite excited about that – because we saw how good this rye turned out. And were actually looking at doing this on our grain side, our column side.”
As for what a rye spirit from a column still would go into: “It’s going to be something new – we have a few ideas but we’re not going to divulge that at the moment; but effectively what we’re going to do, or at least what we are aiming for, is that instead of going for the 60/40 split it would be 100% rye.”
While they haven’t used a malted rye yet, they may in the future depending on the yields from the harvest in the autumn. Part of the narrative of the foundation of the microdistillery was the discovery of a lost recipe book belonging to John Jameson II. So did Jameson The Second have any rye recipes from 100 years ago?
“There are some John Jameson recipes that show an inclusion of rye in it so that’s one of the reasons that we actually started looking at rye, but now we are looking at different ways of doing a full rye just to see what it’s like.”
As for the taste of the rye distillate, it differs slightly from its pot still mixed mash cousin: “What I like about what we are producing here is that even on the taste – because of the triple distillation and the smoothness of the triple distillation they are quite palatable even as a distillate on their own. What we have here is straight off the stills, but what we have done with some of it is put it straight into casks – we kept very little of the distillate, the last of the distillate is effectively gone today what we have tried to do as well is to see how well they are going to mature – we are laying out stocks in normal barrels but we are also trying to put them into smaller barrels because you tend to get a faster maturation time there and it gives you a better feel for how maturation is going to progress on a bigger scale as well so we are quite happy with that at the moment.
“The other side of it as well is that when we – and again this is a learning process for us – when you decide to take something like rye into your plant and you try to mill it using equipment for barley, if you have a hammer mill, it’s amazing the impact it has on your capacity and the speed at which you can mill material through and that was a big learning curve for us because you assume a hammer mill will do what it needs to for any grain but depending on the type of grain, depending on the density of the grain, depending on the size of the grain, it’s going to have an impact, so we are seeing that as we go along as well.”
But if the rye was a challenge to distill, the next sample was the fruits of some very intensive labours. Oats may make an incredibly healthy breakfast cereal, having been recently proved to aid gut and heart health, but they did little good to Brian Nation’s health as he struggled to distill them.
Historically oats would have been used in brewing in the Middle Ages, but very few distillers use them to make whiskey, save Silver Western Oat whiskey from High West – another craft distillery that was on Pernod’s shopping list in the run up to the Smooth Ambler acquisition, before High West ultimately succumbed to Constellation Brands.
As Nation discovered, there is a reason few people distill with oats.
“What we found with the oats is that they are a nightmare to process through the plant because it has such an amount of husk on it and it is quite a light grain, it was unbelievable what we went through, when you have gristbins that are filling up with half – say we took six tonnes into a gristbin of barley, and the gristbin was full, three tonnes of oats would fill the same space, and they were choking the mills. We thought this would be easy – it’s simple, it is such an easy grain to deal with – and then we tried to process and brew and it was quite difficult. Again, another learning curve.
“I would probably say that we are fairly unique in this (the use of oats) at the moment. Normally what you would have found is that oats would have been put into a mash bill at a very small percentage for a lauter tun or a mash tun because what it did was it aided filtration.
“It didn’t really add anything to the flavour at the time but it was more of an aid for ensuring that your filter beds had enough of a grist of oats in it to allow the drainage to come though, whereas we are using it now at a much higher percentage to see what the impact on the flavor is. We were pleasantly surprised with it.
“This is a mash bill of malted barley and oats, again replacing the barley with the oats so again it’s a 60/40. What we felt with the flavour from this is that it tends to come across a little bit lighter but you do tend to have this oatmeal, cereal-bar notes coming through. Still has creaminess – not the same level of fruit as the rye or pot still, but still a quite interesting distillate. A dryer finish, and that cereal note following through but again you can see the difference that the cereal has made on the overall distillate side.”
Of course, the three distillates were just a sample of what has been taking place in the microdistillery: “At this stage I think we have 11 types of distillate that we have produced. Not all of them fantastic, but we are seeing how they mature because sometimes you might produce a distillate that that on its own may be too heavy or whatever, but when you put it into a barrel and mature it a little and see what the impact is there; it might actually combine very well. That’s what we have done with anything we have produced at the moment.”
And while they have used traditional-size casks, Nation explains how they also use micro-barrels for their micro distillate.
“Three to five-litre barrels. We get them specially made. It sounds small, but you have to remember the volume of distillate that we are producing down here compared to up there (in the main plant). The maximum output for this plant is 50,000LA on a five day operation a year, obviously if you went on a 24 hour period you would double that or maybe get it to 120,000LA. For us to be able to put away some of it in normal barrels and then use the three or five litre barrels to see how it gets on.”
Along with planning to create a brewhouse at the site of the microdistilery, they are also considering a maturation space in the same historic buildings, meaning that you have the full cycle of whiskey making in one historic place. As for the main distillery, they just took delivery of another three massive pot stills from Forsyths. Nation talks about the stills and how they were so large they had to be shaped by hand, as the machines could not accommodate their extraordinary size. He talks about being in Rothes and seeing one coppersmith inside the still and another outside, hammering every spot on the surface of the stills. “That is skill; that is craft,” he says.
He is right: Craft isn’t about size, but about skill. The craft of Midleton Distillery goes back to the traditional meaning of the word – strength in art, science and technology. The chronophobia of the whiskey scene – boosted by over-eager marketing departments – has led to a situation where a stunning feat of modern engineering like Midleton is treated like a mild embarrassment. It’s an attitude that brings to mind the quote from Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur L’Art at the start of Walter Benjamin’s Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction:
“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
Valéry wrote those words in 1931, but they might as well have been written today, as they express the same, timeless fear – that scientific advancement means the death of the soul. The team in Midleton have shown that it is their technological might that enables them to experiment and find new ways to practice an age-old skill. As the Jameson juggernaut rolls on, it will be in the trials and errors of the microdistillery that some of the most interesting work takes place. As noted Jameson lover Samuel Beckett wrote: No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Science is something of a dirty word in the whiskey business. Consider the life and work of Aeneas Coffey. After risking life and limb as a gauger, he applied all he knew about distilling (and a lot of what Scots inventor Robert Stein knew) to a new type of still. It was cleaner and more efficient, and was rejected wholesale by the distillers here. The Scots, however, were more receptive to his more efficient and cost-effective invention, and the rest is history.
In Ireland, Coffey’s still was seen as an affront to whiskey, making silent spirit that had no tongue to speak from whence it came – or, to put it another way, it was so pure that you supposedly had no idea what was in it.
To this day, the spirit produced by the Coffey still is seen by whiskey drinkers as the child of a lesser god, rather than the result of a brilliant invention. Of course, its purity does give it a lighter flavour profile in comparison to single malt or the spicy mixed mash of pot still whiskey, but it’s still an example of how the scientific advancement of distilling is not always welcome.
Modern ‘advancements’ haven’t helped the average whiskey drinker change their quasi-Luddite minds – accelerated aging techniques, which range from spirit mixed with wood pellets, to ultrasound used on barrels, to the oldschool sherry hack of paxarette, are really just ways of cheating time. And time, as any human being will tell you, cannot be cheated.
But what is it that makes a whiskey great, beyond any subjective preferences, beyond any labels or marketing? What is the secret to a great whiskey?
If you wanted to ask someone, Dave Quinn is a good person to start with. He was part of that first generation of distillers who focussed on the idea of whiskey as a molecular event that needed to be explored – people who saw distilling as a science as much as an art.
From Longford, he went to college in Galway where he studied biochemistry and then biotechnology. Moving to Cork he started working with Irish Distillers in the 1980s, before transferring to Bushmills – then owned by IDL – in 1996, before transferring back to Midleton in 2002, where he is now their Master Of Science. But what exactly is the science of whiskey?
“Science is just a way of saying we are trying to find a better way of understanding what’s happening right down at the molecular level – understanding the link between what we describe as flavour and taste, and what are the congeners, what are the flavour compounds that actually contribute to that, to what you perceive as taste, flavour, aroma, and we have a certain level of understanding of that but not a complete one by any manner or means,” he says.
Of course, making whiskey isn’t a one step affair – and parts of the process are easier to understand than others, particularly those at the front end.
“It’s easier to understand the biochemistry of brewing and yeast fermentation, what happens to the yeast, the compounds it produces. Where things start to get a bit more tricky is when we get into wood maturation. We have an understanding of some of the wood compounds that contribute but there is a lot of other wood compounds that we don’t fully understand or know about.”
But long before the spirit comes into contact with wood, Quinn and his colleague Dr Dagmara Dabrowska have a way of studying distilling. Squirrelled away within the Midleton campus is a pilot plant – effectively a fully functioning scale model of the distillery, in the style of Derek Zoolander’s school for ants. Initially created as part of their proposed energy saving programme, it began life as a 1/2000th version of the grain columns, and it is here that much of their work takes place.
“We have a pilot plant up there, where we have small pot stills and a column still so we can work on them there without even coming down here to the microdistillery. The pilot plant is very much more … automated isn’t the right word, but with more places where we can take samples and monitor a lot of the variables like temperature and pressure. With the energy saving programme we did a lot of that work in the pilot plant.”
The energy saving was one of the most impressive feats of an already impressive operation in Midleton. The pilot plant was commissioned to conduct R&D into the proposals, which saw them shave 20% off their energy use. Dr Dabrowska is credited with much of the success of that project. As Head of Analytical and Technical Development, she helped find new ways to transfer energy between the columns – a piece of equipment that, Aeneas Coffey would be delighted to know, produces more spirit than any other part of Midleton distillery. Their colossal grain output was finally celebrated with the recent release of both the 31-year-old and 11-year-old single grain bottlings, the distillery’s first under their own name (the Irish Whiskey Society released a Midleton grain bottling two years ago).
Launched under the Method & Madness incubator brand – a space for IDL to experiment with their output – the grain whiskeys were a striking departure from the heritage pot-still brands like Redbreast and Yellow Spot to a more modern aesthetic and an embracing of science. But whiskey is all science, despite what the marketing department might tell you. The modern distillery tries to site itself in a romantic pastoral dreamscape, where the distiller hand operates all aspects and divines the perfect cut using only his senses. The truth is rather different. Modern distilleries have more in common with pharma plants than the sort of thatched-cottage scenes on their labels. Distillers are – and always have been – scientists. But it is in the collision between the quantifiable perfection of science and the beautiful chaos of human nature that some of the most interesting interactions take place, as Quinn points out.
“For example, somebody is doing a sensory evaluation trying to use normal everyday words to describe the flavour that they are seeing or feeling, to try and take that – say somebody saying I get a nice hint of floral note, a bit of rose petal and a bit of leather, and cigar tobacco in the background – there is no way that you could say well that is due to ABCD or E, as different people will have different terminology and different language to describe what they perceive as flavour.
“So one of the things we do in our sensory science lab is to try and standardise the language a little bit so that if somebody does say leather or cereal notes or whatever, we try and ensure that everyone uses the same language to describe that particular attribute in the whiskey. And then we might try and see if we can determine what is causing or what is contributing to that.”
But while the pilot plant and sensory science lab may be akin to the Large Hadron Collider, there is no one illusive God Particle that can create a particular flavour.
“Invariably it is not just a single congener – it could be the effect of multiple congeners coming together to give you a single sensory effect. You have some compounds that on their own … – you find a single compound and put it into neutral alcohol and increase its concentration so you get to a point where you could actually perceive it as an aroma , and then if you go below that minimum level and you don’t get it then that is deemed the flavour threshold – in other words, you have some compounds that have very high flavour threshold, in other words you need a lot of them for you to perceive it.
“But then some are very low flavour thresholds, levels that you can barely measure, but you can still pick it up on the nose. And it is those compounds that are the key ones in terms of bridging that gap between identifying the sensory act of compounds and identifying them and relating them to a particular character.
“What can happen is that you can get small individual compounds that might be below the flavour threshold; in other words, theoretically you should not be able to pick them up. But there’s a few of them that are sometimes present together that can almost act synergistically so that individually you wouldn’t be able to detect them but when they are combined together they give you a flavour and perception. And then you are getting into an area that can be very difficult to fully explore.”
That ‘area’ is us. Our perceptions are based on a combination of nature – the senses we are born with – and nurture – the tastes we develop as we grow, which are impacted on by the culture and environment around us.
“Different people will have different preferences, different likes, even different sensitivities to flavors so there will be some elements of flavour that some people will pick up readily and other people cannot perceive them at all.”
Quinn’s work with Irish Distillers is less about stripping the soul from whiskey than it is about understanding how to make the best whiskey possible. It may seem like a eugenics programme, where error and, thus, personality, are eliminated under the jackbooted march of lab technicians in white coats, ruthlessly striving for a dystopian purity. In reality, it is what science always aims to be – about doing better.
“We are trying to understand distilling at a molecular level. The key is – the more you can understand, the more you can make informed decisions about what influences the taste or the character of whiskey. But it is also about what aspects don’t affect it. If you don’t have some level of understanding then you can’t really go and do the same distillation with confidence. You can only do this if you have a good understanding of the technical, science element of what you’re doing, because if you’re just relying on old wives tales and superstitions about not changing anything in the distillery, then you will never be able to develop something unique and interesting.”
Quinn knows a thing or two about doing unique things, given that, along with Peter Morehead, he was one of the chief drivers of the runaway success that is Jameson Caskmates, inspired by a spirit of innovation, experimentation and adventure.
But while the Method & Madness brand has the space for more mad-scientist style experimentation with wood and distillate styles, in both the main distillery and micro distillery, part of Quinn’s work is to ensure that as the Irish whiskey category explodes worldwide, a consistent standard is maintained, not just of quality but also of flavour profile. Distillers used to be full of superstition, where any change to the process – even the cleaning of cobwebs in the stillhouse – was deemed to be bad luck in case it affected the spirit, a culture of what a scientist might refer to as ‘poppycock’.
“You can keep doing the same thing over and over again but if you have a better understanding of what the fundamentals are then you have a much better opportunity of directing your research and your experiments in a path you know will change the spirits, and you can say ‘let’s try it’ and know more or less what the outcome is going to be. You go from a chancing-your-arm, needle-in-a-haystack approach to having a far more focussed approach.”
The distillery in Midleton is one of the most impressive, modern facilities in the world, and it has shown that you can be the biggest and also be the best. While the public facing side may be one of heritage and tradition, scientists like Dave Quinn, Dagmara Dabrowska and the rest of the Masters and their apprentices have shown that they are getting ever closer to unlocking the secrets of a perfect dram and entering a brave new world of truly great whiskeys.
Footnote: There is an excellent interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation in the Engineering Journal, which you can read here. It goes into some depth on the energy saving programme. There is also a recent presentation by Dr Dabrowska which you can read here, which goes into her work on the column stills.
“There are two kinds of Christmas people – those who like their Christmas lights to stay on solid and those who like them to blink. As a kid, I always had a thing for sitting in the dark and watching the lights blink on and off at random. In the end, what we have are these little, great moments. They come and they go. That’s as good as it gets. But, still, isn’t that great?”
Mark Everett of The Eels.
This time three years ago I was doing work I loved in a job I hated, with no end in sight and no way out. This time two years ago I was cashing my redundancy cheque and wondering what I was doing with my life, as my wife gave birth to our fourth child a few days later. This time last year I was in the toughest and best job I have ever had (in an emergency department), still wondering what I was doing with my life and, on a secondary note, how much longer my dad was going to be around. Obviously the last 12 months changed a lot of those things. Dad got sick, I left work to care for him, he passed away, I went back to work in a different department, and – one week before Christmas – we moved into the house I grew up in. It’s strange being here with them gone; there were four of us here once. But my own family is big enough now that it doesn’t feel empty, and for once my wife and I are in the unique position of living in a house large enough to be able to ask ‘where are the kids?’, as in our previous home – a three-bed semi – there was never a time when there wasn’t a child in the room with you, sort of like The Grudge, or the end of The Blair Witch Project.
I’m still trying to dig through my dad’s stuff, of which there is tonnes. A lot of it goes back to my great grandfather’s time – books from his time with the RIC in Bantry at the turn of the last century – and some from my dad’s family home in Clonakilty, like these two old pictures.
Of course, it was when I pulled them apart that the real gold was found.
Since then I’ve ripped up every old frame to see if I can find the rest of the George Roe Distillery poster, or more pub posters. Or at least I assume they came from a pub, given the way Ireland was about whiskey they might have been deemed perfectly appropriate for the home. They are certainly going to be for mine, as I’m reframing and hanging them. But the problem I now face is what to keep and what to discard – we are in the position of simply having too much beautiful, historic stuff. We thought we could sell some of it at auction, but incredibly, nowhere would take all my parents’ treasured antiques. We just donated most of the furniture to charity, where no doubt they will get picked up by an antique dealer for a few quid and sold on at auction for profit. Such is life. I just want them to be in a home rather than a landfill.
So 2016 is over. People came and went, lights went on and then went off. I had some highs, some lows, but generally it was all normal, natural stuff. My kids are fine, apart from my daughter having lupus and my three year old son being tested for an intellectual disability, but they are generally healthy, and, as far as I can tell, happy. They didn’t have an easy year, with all the things that happened and me disappearing out of their lives for three months to care for dad. My wife didn’t have it easy either, but now here we are, with a view from Cork city to Garryvoe, in a house with high ceilings, preparing for the rest of our lives. So it’s not all bad.
I rang in the new year with a drop of Ledaig 22 year old via Cadenheads. It was great, incredibly smooth, with an amazing, fruity, pear-drop camphor note. It didn’t have the length I expected, but made up for it in depth. I had plenty great drams in 2016, most of them while I lived here with my dad, all those special occasion bottles I ripped into on a nightly basis. I liked the green-apple freshness of the Hakushu NAS, the sweet, opulent Tyrconnell 10 madeira cask finish, the unfuckwithable sherry bomb that is the A’bunadh, and the oily, velvet smoke of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. None of them costing a king’s ransom, and all the more enjoyable for it. Given that I now own a money pit that will consume all my meagre earnings like a sarlacc devouring an especially small bounty hunter, all drams from now on will be the best value my shekels can barter for. But you cut your cloth to fit your measure, and there is no way I could justify blowing a couple of hundred euro on a bottle. After all, it’s only booze.
So to the year ahead, and some of my great expectations. I’d like to win the Lotto, or just get more money through normal means, such as hard work or insurance fraud. I’d like to see Bushmills get their shit together and fulfill their potential. I’d like to see more distilleries getting set up here, and less shenanigans by bottlers slinging Cooley as though it were the second coming. If the IWA won’t tackle it, consumer pressure might – after all, one of the oddest things to happen to me during the year was being asked to go on Liveline to talk about one bottler’s spectacular displays of false provenance. When you’re being asked to talk to Joe, it might be time to stop claiming you can get ‘the taste of west Cork’ from something distilled and aged for ten years at the opposite end of the Irish Republic.
I’d also like to see the world not get blown up this year. Trump’s election was the first event to make me think ‘I sure am glad dad isn’t here to see this’. It’s hard to believe that less than a century after the Holocaust we are gearing up to goosestep down the same ashen path. I wrote some guff about him for the Indo, which you can read here, which led to me getting a name drop on the ‘what it says in the papers’ bit on Morning Ireland. So the rise of fascism has had some real positives for me. Sock it to us Quimby!
Trump’s id-driven tweeting also made me realise that I hate exclamation marks, and generally look down on people who use them, even though I chuck them into the odd tweet myself, usually to drive home some attempt at humour on someone I don’t know that well. So for 2017 – fuck exclamation marks. And Nazis, obviously.
Personal goals include getting back into the gym, reading more, writing more, and getting a lot better at photography, specifically night photography. Out here in the hills the night skies are the same awesome celestial panoramas as they were when I was a ten year old amateur astronomer, sitting out the front with my mum, staring up and and incorrectly naming the constellations. My adult attempts at capturing them on camera look like reverse Rorschach test cards. So that needs to improve. Or I just need to give up.
I’d also like not to lose any more people. It seems unlikely, given that some of the people I know are old, but as long as no-one who dies is under, say, 75, I think it will be fine. I’ve said enough goodbyes for a while.
I’ve long been a fan of Writers Tears – even on a purely aesthetic level, I would sing its praises. Fortunate then that, beneath the surface, it is also a cracking whiskey. Walsh have recently released another expression in the family, and because every Irish family has at least one ginge in it, this one is titled Red Head.
This is billed as ‘a triple distilled single malt’ – so this is the point where I tap my nose, wink at you and mouth the word ‘Bushmills’. You furrow your brow, mis-lipread and think I mouthed ‘punch me’ and we end up in a tremendous donnybrook that makes the Táin Bó Cúailnge look like an especially weak episode of WWE Raw.
This exquisite, triple-distilled single malt is matured only in select handpicked Spanish sherry butts which have previously been seasoned with the finest Oloroso sherry. It is the influence of these scarce butts that give this expression of Writers Tears its signature rich, ruby hue and hence the moniker – ‘Red Head’. The expression is distilled without chill filtering as nature intended and at a distinctive 46% ABV.
So what of my slightly-pissed tasting notes:
A real sweetness on the nose, lots of rich caramel (the foodstuff, not the colouring) in there, a little bit of clove and cinnamon. Palate-wise – more spices than I expected, a lot of really nice heat from that extra bit of ABV, definitely feeling that orange peel note touted in the official tasting notes. The finish is not the 2001: A Space Odyssey-style epic the notes suggest, but it has more of the spice and less of the sweetness from the nose. For less than €50, and a NAS to boot, you cannot expect some multi-layered labyrinth of flavour. I prefer the standard Copper Pot expression, and would still recommend it over this, but this Red Head still has more soul than your average ginger.
As part of the Midleton food festival each September, there is a tasting in the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town. It’s usually a ridiculously cheap five or ten euro for four premium whiskeys – but the event used to be completely free. However, one year at the end of the tasting, a little old lady went around and poured all the leftover drams into a little plastic bottle. When confronted and asked why, she said ‘it’s for the Christmas cake’. After that, they started to charge. But it’s hard to argue with the lady’s common sense approach to all that leftover whiskey. To many, it is the Christmas drink – we use it to flavour the cake, torch the pudding, liven up our coffee or just warm the blood during the darkest season in Northern Europe. But what do whiskey drinkers in warmer climes drink? Well, one option is to have something from the ready-to-drink (or RTD) category; Jameson comes in a variety of pre-mixed variations in Australia, including Cloudy Apple, Raw Cola and this:
Because when you’re drinking in a desert, you need a little more than 35cl of hard liquor to quench your thirst. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Jameson would launch a whiskey in South Africa before anywhere else; but that’s exactly what they did with what we call Black Barrel, then known as Jameson Select Reserve.
Still known by that name in one of the big emerging markets for whiskey, Kenya, the spirit itself is a bit of an oddity, being a blend of pot still and mixed-mash barley spirit from a column still. You can read the full breakdown here on Liquid Irish. The Black Barrel tag came from the fact the barrels are double charred. The result is a sweet vanilla dram reminiscent, to my mind, of the more American styles. When I try to badger my wife into drinking whiskey, it is this I opt for – ‘it’s kinda like Jack Daniels’ I pitch. ‘Except it isn’t and it’s is a lot nicer’, I think to myself.
While the African market is a growing one for IDL, so too are almost all others – the distillery in Midleton may be capable of creating a vast array and amount of whiskey, but they need more space to grow. To this end, they recently bought a farm that lay adjacent to the site. It went to public auction, the previous owner having passed away. There is a full write-up on the Independent, which makes for interesting reading. Initially being sold in lots, IDL and one other bidder wanted the lot – and IDL, being a very large firm )with a substantial parent firm in the form of Pernod Ricard) won the day.
What is interesting is how community focused IDL they are; beyond being the best employer in the area in terms of salaries, conditions and general vibe, they also have engaged with some of the bidders to make deals on the smaller lots they don’t need – one of those being the GAA club, which is currently located at the other end of the town. Access there is a nightmare, whereas the land IDL have just bought has planning for a new access road – which would also take their deliveries out of the town itself.
When I heard the distillery bought a farm, I immediately assumed they were going to use it for grain for the microdistillery, or just as a lovely prop for the whiskey academy, but it seems more likely they will use it to expand their operations – and possibly also to create flood defences, as earlier this year there was extensive flooding upriver from their site. I’ve written about this before, and made the point that some people locally laid the blame on the distillery, despite it being there for four decades with no flooding. You can see from this video that some of the warehouses were affected, but also that the floods spread miles back along the river.
In fact, the area that flooded is the part of the site that is zoned for industry, so I’d imagine IDL have plans for serious flood defences before they start any new building work.
All of this tells you two things – first, IDL are important to the community here. For a small town like Midleton, this kind of employment forms its economic backbone. Without the distillery, we could have gone the way of Youghal – stripped of large businesses over the past 30 years, currently Youghal’s largest employer is the State-run St Raphael’s care home.
IDL also support various community projects here, including the recently developed youth centre, something worth considering next time you hear someone droning on about the demon drink and how it is ruining society.
The second piece of information to be gleaned from the farm purchase is that IDL know that they are going to have a lot of competition in the next ten years, so now is the time to flex those sizeable muscles and expand lines as well as the plant itself. I was in Scotland when I first heard about the new Green Spot expression, earwigging on a conversation between Sir Colin Hampden White of the ultra-lux, invite-only Whisky Quarterly magazine and Mark Gillespie of the ever-popular WhiskyCast, who were both off to the launch event the following week. The single pot still whiskey is finished in wine casks from Château Léoville-Barton, a merging of Irish and French cultures that appealed to me, as it was French monks from the Burgundy region who built the monastic settlement that later became the town of Midleton (update – this is massively incorrect; thanks again, Wikipedia. See comment from local historian Tony Harpur below).
But there is another Irish connection here: Thomas Barton, of Barton & Guestier, left Ireland to find his fortune in Bordeaux in 1724, starting a shipping company there before becoming a very successful wine merchant. Barton kept his Irish heritage, buying Grove House, a stately home and estate near Fethard. Known as ‘French Tom’ to the locals – despite being from Fermanagh – the family are central to the history of the town:
Thomas Barton was succeeded in Grove by his son William. William Barton also played an integral part in the life of the local community, he was sovereign in the years 1816,18,19,21,23 and 29.He gave the site for the present Parish Church and also had greeted the public pump on the Square. The pump was being used up to the mid thirties. It became part of Fethard folklore when the rallying cry of old time Fethard football supporters was “Come on the two streets and a pump”.
So what of the whiskey itself – on the nose there is a little menthol, cut with green fruits, but with a real deep rich plummy note from the wine finish. On the palette there is a lot more of the traditional Green Spot tongue-smacking astringency and less of those velvety wine elements. The front is where it’s at, with a rich caramel flavour that passes all too quickly. I feel like I do about Green Spot generally – I like it, but I’m not going to sell my soul to get a bottle. At €69, this is a good whiskey – but not one I would be shouting from the rooftops about.
One whiskey I do shout from all surfaces about is Redbreast. When people ask me to recommend an Irish whiskey, it is the one I always fall back on – it was my first foray into the upper echelons of whiskey, and is one I will always have a special place in my heart for. So expectations are even higher for their latest release in this line, the Lustau Edition. Here is some press release:
Redbreast has introduced a new, permanent expression to its decorated Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey family; Redbreast Lustau Edition. Finished in hand selected, first-fill sherry butts that are seasoned with Oloroso sherry from the prestigious Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain, this release celebrates the iconic sherry influence found throughout the Redbreast range.
Matured initially in a combination of exceptional ex-Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks, Redbreast Lustau Edition has been wholly finished for one year in prized sherry butts from Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, the sherry capital of the world.
So what of this one: This has a real, rich fruit element to it that is fantastic – on the nose it has fruit and nut dark chocolate, sherry trifle, a hint of incense. Like they always say, Christmas cake in a glass – on the palette, beyond the stewed fruits, marzipan and lots of salted caramel brittle, but like all the Redbreasts this is just liquid silk. Incredible mouth-coating, oily gush with a snap, crackle and pop as the flavours go to work. I would still favour the 12, but that is simply that I am an ageist. One of the things I love about whiskey is the idea that you are buying time – this drink in your hand lay sleeping in a cask for a decade or more, and when you drink it you are consuming all those years, all that time. As I get older and ever closer to the inevitable maw of the wolf of oblivion, this is important to me; if I drink the waters of life, I want to know how many years I am consuming. Make it NAS and I just spend my time wondering how old it actually is (in this case, 10-13 years). That’s not to take from this whiskey – age statement or not, it is excellent. I’m not saying that the Green Spot is a child of a lesser god – I just prefer the profile of the Redbreast. Green Spot is lighter, to me, it’s a summer whiskey; great with ice or even a mixer. Redbreast is winter, rich food and warm fires, short days and long nights of sitting about like an especially lazy emperor, darkness and comfort. If I had to recommend one over the other, it would obviously be the Redbreast Lustau sherry edition, but bear in mind that this is the recommendation of someone who got drunk for the first time at age 12 on an especially potent sherry trifle, so my opinion may be skewed (and my brain damaged).
Thank you to the good people at Burrell PR for the bottle of Black Barrel, and the samples of the Green Spot and the Lustau.
What is a baseball bat? Is it a piece of sports equipment, used by athletes the world over, a symbol of the unifying power of team sports? Or is it a weapon, used by thugs the world over, a symbol of gang violence? Is it the embodiment of America’s national pastime – or is it something you use to smash a lackey’s head in, a la Al Capone in The Untouchables?
And speaking of being beaten over the head with a blunt instrument, this metaphor is pretty weak – but there is a better one.
The 21st amendment to the American constitution, passed in 1933, repealed Prohibition – the nationwide outlawing of alcohol – but some states still had the power to restrict or simply ban the sale of booze in all its forms. The last state to give up total Prohibition was Mississippi, which stayed dry until 1966. As a result, for those 33 years, alcohol was a hot topic for all Mississippi politicians. However, only one of them is remembered for a speech he gave on the subject.
Noah S. ‘Soggy’ Sweat Jr got his nickname from his mop of hair and its resemblance to the sorghum top, or sugar cane tassel, rather than his physical reaction to the oppressive heat of the deep south. In his life he was a judge, a law professor, and, briefly, as a young man, a state representative in Mississippi. In 1952, towards the end of his term, he gave a speech on the floor of the state legislature concerning alcohol sales, and specifically whiskey. At this stage he was used to being badgered by the Prohibitionists (the ‘drys’) and the repeal side (the ‘wets’) to give a solid opinion on the topic, and had spent long enough wrestling with the subject to come up with one definitive stance.
What he said became known as the ‘If By Whiskey’ speech and it came to symbolise how difficult a subject alcohol is for public representatives to discuss, as it also captures how we can hold two opposing views at the same time. Here it is in full:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
The speech is witty, poetic and moving. It sums up the pleasures and sorrows of alcohol and asks big questions about how we think about the issue – how often do you hear politicians talking about about the scourge of alcohol, as though the liquid itself was to blame? We talk about the negatives it as though ‘the drink’ takes control of us, like some sort of demonic possession, and exonerates us from any wrongdoing, and erases all choice we might have had in the matter. Yes, it diminishes our ability to make sensible decisions – but we choose to drink it knowing that. In fact, its ability to release us from the pressures of life is one of the things that makes it so important; but, like anything else that gets abused – drugs, food, sex – it does damage. It is in the abusing that all harm is done.
In Ireland we still wring our hands about alcohol abuse, despite the fact that our consumption of it is falling. According to Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners alcohol consumption in Ireland is down 25% since 2001 with consumption of beer and spirits down 40%.
There is always that moment of surprise when you see a table of nations and their alcohol consumption – we are rarely even in the top ten (it’s okay though, we are still higher than the UK).
So we are not the nation of alcoholics we sometimes like to think we are; booze plays a large role in our society, but that is changing. Consumption of alcohol in pubs is down 35 percent in the last decade. Against those figures, wine consumption is up, as we move towards drinking at home, a choice guided as much by the crackdown on drink-driving as it is by changing tastes.
There are bleating voices on both sides of the debate around alcohol – from the industry there is the usual cry of ‘blessed are the job creators’, as they roll out all the economic contributions they make to the State.
On the other side is the health campaigners, who bemoan the costs to our health service and to our society.
Like the If-By-Whiskey speech, both arguments are right – alcohol contributes huge sums to the economy, not least in taxes. Ireland has the highest priced alcohol in the EU, with the the second highest taxes on alcohol in the EU, according to Eurostat and the EU Commission. In 2014, the exchequer received €1.42 from every pint costing €4.64, (or 30.6% of the price) consumed in bars; €16.41 or 68.4% of the price of a €24 off-licence bottle of whiskey; and €4.50 or 64% of the price of a €7 off-licence bottle of wine. So it is already quite expensive to drink here, without even considering the flawed model of minimum unit pricing, itself a blunt tool that is effectively a class-based prohibition.
So taxes are high here, but the argument that ‘you can buy whiskey cheap in America so why not here’ is a facile one – try losing your job in America, or getting sick, or testing the state supports in any capacity before you praise their taxation regime. Booze has always been the taxman’s whipping boy – the very first tax ever levied by the American government was on whiskey, and it lead to what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. But the tax stood, and it was used to build their then fledgling nation. Taxes on alcohol are high in Ireland, but we have a high standard of living here – as someone who spent eight months on the dole last year, I was startled at just how generous the state was to my family and I.
Also, for the consumer to assume tax cuts would equate to price cuts is naive – particularly where whiskey is concerned, as like Stella Artois (before it went for sales volume over value), the average bottle of triple-distilled liquid silk is deliberately ‘reassuringly expensive’. And to those who say that the whiskey taxes are killing the industry here, the distillery boom we are seeing in the past four years show that high taxes on whiskey are no barrier to business.
So taxes are high, prices are relatively high, yet some people still drink too much – so how do you stop them? This is where the real issues surrounding alcohol come into play, and where Soggy Sweat’s words really ring true, because alcohol, like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, is an angel to some and a demon to others: It all comes down to choice.
National drug and alcohol policy is often based around the broad premise that substance abuse is about pleasure, rather than pain, or rather the escape from pain – subsequently, legislation often deals in broad strokes, such as minimum unit pricing or curfews on sales. These laws are a simplistic way of dealing with an incredibly complex issue, because – as pointed out in Ken Burns’s masterful documentary Prohibition – you cannot legislate for morals. You cannot outlaw dysfunction, you cannot go into every home and ensure that everyone has sufficient coping mechanisms to not fall into some sort of addiction.
A republic has to allow its citizens to make poor choices, even if those choices affect those around them and society as a whole. Walk the main street of any small town in Ireland and you will see just how good we are at making bad choices – chippers, pubs, offies and bookies; all offering products or services that are fine in small doses, but which can ruin lives.
My parent never drank much, my dad did a bit, my mum not at all. Like many Irish kids I was given a drop of whiskey for a sore tooth now and again, but generally I grew up in a pretty dry, intensely religious household. I started secretly drinking when I was 13, and was a frequent binge drinker by the time I was 15. I would steal money, go to Cork and buy flagons of cider and sit in Bishop Lucey Park drinking with a rotating cast of crusties, new age travellers, the destitute and the deranged. When I left school I worked in a kitchen, as cheffing was an industry where you can drink yourself into oblivion and nobody would take much notice. It is a period of my life I don’t look back on with any pleasure – it was a relentlessly grim cycle of broken relationships and self destruction. There was no joy, and if it had continued I have no doubt I would be dead now.
But things changed. I went back to college and although I still drank, it was in a fun, social way. As I got older my outings got rarer and rarer, and nowadays I just love a whiskey of two at the weekends.
Since I’ve been living with my dad and looking after him, I’ve been drinking more – in fact, almost every night. I spend my days looking after him, making his food and helping him about the house, managing hospital visits and dispensing his medication. It’s all straightforward stuff, and I am happy to do it; I’ve been looking after him for three months, he looked after me for about 40 years. My wife and kids had planned to move in, but we soon realised that the cacophony of our family would be too much for him, so I am here alone, watching him slowly die. His mind is starting to go, and I can feel him slipping away from me. Most days I just spend staring at him, missing him even though he is still here.
At night I go upstairs and open another one of the bottles I had been saving for a special occasion and have a good cut off it. And after the first few sips, I can feel the weight of sadness lift slightly, and I relax, even for an hour or two, and I drift from where I am. I watch a few Norm Macdonald videos or goof off on Twitter, and it takes me away. As Judge Sweat pointed out, whiskey enables me to magnify my joy, and my happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, one of my life’s great tragedies.
There are many who would point out that I am committing that terrible act – using alcohol as a crutch. But I need a crutch. If I don’t have something to quell my mind before bed, I would spend hours lying there, mentally drafting eulogies, occasionally sobbing. Whiskey is a salve on my emotional wounds. If I didn’t have that, I would be doing a lot worse than I am.
In my youth I used alcohol to harm myself – now I am using it to heal. But it is often used in this manner – in many hospitals alcohol is prescribed. I spoke to a doctor recently who told me that as a junior doc with the NHS in the early Nineties he used to regularly prescribe sherry, whiskey and Guinness to patients.
A physio told me that when she trained in a London hospital there was a patient in intensive care for a long period of time. His mood dipped and so he was prescribed a whiskey each evening. It worked, and his mood lifted. It didn’t stop him dying, but it made his demise that little bit more bearable.
In fact, Marymount Hospice – where my dad is headed soon – has a drinks trolley for patients, where you can have a pint or a whiskey of an evening.
Alcohol is a bridge from our own profane humanity to a divine plane where our troubles are diminished. For some, their troubles are such that they never want to return. For the rest of us, it’s simply a welcome few hours of escape.
Like a baseball bat, alcohol is a weapon if you choose to use it that way. Used right, it is one of life’s great joys, a thought reflected by the American baseball star Tug McGraw. After signing a lucrative contract, he was asked how he would spend his money. His reply was: “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other ten percent I’ll probably waste.”
In June 1940, a man walked from the surf onto a beach on the Dingle peninsula. He stopped to bury a radio transmitter in the sand, walked inland until he stumbled across an old railway line and then headed towards the town of Dingle. With an hour to kill until the bus to Tralee, he accepted an invitation into a local pub – even though it was 7am. There, he had three whiskeys and, in the grand Irish tradition of drinking on public transport, he bought a bottle of whiskey for the journey. In Tralee he got on the Dublin train, and spent much of the journey talking about how ‘that great man Hitler would set Ireland free’. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in Dublin, and identified as Walter Simon – a German spy. In fact, he was one of two spies who tried to enter England via the wild western frontiers of the Kerry coast, although he was the only one undone by a lethal combination of Kerry hospitality and Irish whiskey.
If you saw the Dingle peninsula, you could see its appeal to a U-boat captain looking to land a covert operative – miles and miles of jagged coastline and sparse population give parts of it the feel of an abandoned outpost on some deserted, beautiful planet. When you go to Dingle from almost anywhere outside Kerry, it feels like you have crossed a timezone or two. You can’t just got to Dingle for the night – you have to commit to a trip down there, clear your schedule for a few days.
The last time I spoke to Oliver Hughes, he asked me to come down for a festive celebration in Dingle Distillery to mark the release of their first whiskey. I could have made it, albeit for just a few hours, but then I wouldn’t be able to relax, as I had work the next morning. So with a heavy heart I declined. I felt terrible about it – when I was took part in the Dingle Whiskey School I had been talking to Oliver and the rest of the staff about how hard it was to get journalists to cover events outside The Pale, especially at the far end of the country. He made the point that he could have built the distillery somewhere in the hinterland of Dublin, but he loved Dingle, and knew it was a special place, so for him there was nowhere else.
One evening during the whiskey school he drove myself and fellow journalist Eleanor Cosgrove along Slea Head, pointing out various landmarks such as the Sleeping Giant, the site of the village in Ryan’s Daughter (sadly levelled after filming finished because the council couldn’t sort out the insurance) and the iconic Dunquin Pier. At the top of the long zig-zag down to the pier is a shed, held to the ground with ropes and rocks, because when a storm hits here, everything is fair game – the terrifying storm scenes of Ryan’s Daughter weren’t shot on a soundstage; in fact, due to the temperamental Irish weather, some of the beach scenes where sun was required were shot in South Africa. The trip around the peninsula was a memorable one, as Oliver told us some great stories about his time in Kerry, as well as a few insane tales from his days as a barrister.
That night Oliver brought us and some of the Founding Fathers (the title for investors in the distillery) out for dinner to Ashe’s. It was there we got to see the actual bar tab run up by Bob Mitchum during the filming of David Lean’s beautiful epic. Much like Walter Simon, Mitchum indulged in a dram or two when in the area.
Over dinner we all chatted and got to know each other, Oliver cracking jokes and keeping the chat and wine flowing. He was a great host, despite the fact that he was a busy man – when I met him for a dram before dinner in Dick Mack’s, he was tucked away in the back talking over some new ideas he had with business associates. He was an ‘idea guy’ – someone who was almost plagued with creative visions. How else could he have had the foresight to start a craft beer business in Ireland? I remember walking into the Porterhouse on Parliament Street in the late Nineties and ordering a pint of Heineken, only to be told they didn’t have it on tap. I thought ‘haha this place is doomed’ and ordered a bottle of the heinous swill instead, refusing to try anything new. Thankfully, there are people out there who weren’t as obnoxiously close-minded as I, and his business thrived. But I don’t believe he was trying to create an empire, or even build a legacy, he just wanted people to try something new. What he did for Ireland was to change the way people thought about beer – no longer was it a few different types of nondescript swill to get shamefacedly blotto on. With the craft beer movement it was now something to be enjoyed, explored, celebrated.
The last time I saw Oliver in person was at Whiskey Live Dublin. I was at the Tamdhu/Glengoyne stand trying a few drams when suddenly he appeared and started talking to the assembled group about his distillery, his whiskey, his vision. I’m not sure the Scottish reps quite knew what to do as he completely took over their pitch by sheer force of will. He had a gloriously punk DIY attitude, despite the pinstripes. He was a pioneer, a man on the wild frontiers of food and drink. Little wonder then that he chose to build his distillery on Ireland’s western front.
In a world of bland corporate personalities, he was a breath of fresh air – electric, acerbic, outspoken – and, at 57, far too young to die.
Footnote: You can read some of Oliver’s posts on the original Dingle Distillery blog here.
I’m not sure that many people in Midleton are aware that one of the world’s most significant distilleries lies just outside the town. It sits there on the skyline, silently creating and maintaining the bulk of the world supply of Irish whiskey.
Of course, the local lack of understanding isn’t helped by the fact that it still gives Bow Street as the address on the bottle – I once got into a heated argument with a family member from the big smoke who would not believe that they no longer make Jameson in Dublin. ‘But it says it on the bottle’ he kept telling me. But the distillery is here in east Cork, just over my left shoulder as I write this. It gives me an immense sense of pride to be from Midleton – effectively, the home of Irish whiskey for several decades. And, of course, there is always that local pride to see them celebrated on the world stage, which they have been once again:
Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard has been named Producer of the Year at this year’s prestigious International Spirits Challenge (ISC), topping the ‘World Whiskies’ group that not only encompasses the Irish Whiskey category but also all other world whiskies, showcasing the continued prowess of Ireland’s leading whiskey producer.
Irish Distillers picked up the accolade at an ISC award ceremony, held at the Honourable Artillery Company in Central London on July 6th.
Speaking at the event, Brian Nation, Irish Distillers Head Distiller, commented: “This prestigious award is testament to the dedication and commitment of the passionate craftspeople at the Midleton Distillery; past and present. It is a huge honour to be part of a team that is collectively recognised as producer of the year for all world whiskies, and a fantastic motivation to continue crafting our award-winning products with the utmost care and consistency.”
Now in its 21st year, the ISC is one of the world’s most influential competitions in promoting outstanding quality spirits. The competition is founded on a rigorous and independent judging process, and receives more than 1,300 entries from nearly 70 countries worldwide.
One of the things that industry people will tell you is that it isn’t the scale of the Midleton operation that is most impressive about it, but rather the versatility – as one master distiller in Scotland put it to me ‘it’s not how much they can create, it’s what they can do – that’s what is so remarkable’.
In short, Midleton distillery can make a lot of whiskey, but they can also make a lot of whiskeys – they can remix and rewrite to create a vast array of spirit styles long before they even start thinking about wood. A good example of this diversity is in the list of expressions that won medals at the ISC this year:
Jameson Black Barrel (Gold)
Jameson 18 Year Old (Gold)
Jameson Bold (Gold)
Jameson Round (Gold)
Redbreast 12 Year Old (Gold)
Yellow Spot (Gold)
Powers John’s Lane Release (Gold)
Jameson Original (Silver)
Jameson Signature (Silver)
Jameson Caskmates (Silver)
Jameson Crested (Silver)
Jameson Lively (Silver)
Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength (Silver)
Redbreast 15 Year Old (Silver)
Redbreast 21 Year Old (Silver)
Green Spot (Silver)
IDL recently rebranded a few of the above into a more unified style, something that reflects the changing times here: For years we had a few distilleries trying to look like several – and now there are several distilleries here it is time for the big producers to circle the wagons and place some of their brands under one flag.
As someone who loves the variety of IDL’s output, I’m not wild about the idea. I can see the logic behind it, but to see a cult classic like Crested 10, with its old fashioned styling and inaccurate name (it’s not ten years old) being rebranded into a sort of rugby jersey-looking yoke is just depressing. But if it was a case of rebrand or retire – which it possibly was, given Crested’s lack of profile – then I guess I can suck it up.
I had hoped to get this garbage written without mentioning millennials, but since this rebrand is most likely aimed squarely at them, I’m going to. The Makers’ and Deconstructed series are effectively a painting-by-numbers introduction to whiskey, taking drinkers on those first few tentative steps from blends down the rabbit hole to personalised Glencairns, tweed waistcoats and terrible puns on the word ‘dram’. Dramnation awaits you all!
But this re-positioning makes sense – given the huge boom in Irish whiskey, you want to bring as many people into the fold as possible, even if it is with a trio of whiskeys which sound like a tragic personal ad – ‘lively, round and bold’ – or another trio of whiskeys which sound like like something out of Roger Melly’s Profanisaurus (Blender’s Dog being a particular offender in this regard).
As for new expressions, who knows – but this interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation mentions Gan Eagla, which is the Irish language version of the Jameson family slogan, sine metu; without fear. It might as well mean ‘without age statement’ since that seems to be the industry trend – churn out as many NAS titles as your marketing team can dream up and keep charging premium rates for them.
But we live in hope: I’d love to see a Red Spot (they still have the trademark, there’s still a chance!), or more of the creativity that gave us Dair Ghaelach, or anything with a little bit more depth, and a few more years on it. I am very, very far from being any sort of whiskey expert, geek or even a proper blogger (30,000 posts on here, a couple of hundred on whiskey), but I’d like to see less NAS, and more quality, aged whiskeys coming from my hometown. I know they have it – when I look out the window all I can see is acres of warehouses, stacked to the rafters with barrels just waiting to be emptied down my gullet.
But until that glorious day, let’s just all agree that IDL are getting it mostly right as long as they don’t resurrect Kiskadee rum:
As a species, we have become completely estranged from what we consume. Over the last few centuries we have transitioned from living on locally grown, native foods to barely being able to tell what we are eating, where it came from and what has been done to it. The quote that inspired William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch hold a lesson for us – it suggested a frozen moment when every person truly saw what was on the end of every fork for what it was. Burroughs was suggesting a moment of existential dread, but he might as well have been talking about what we eat and drink – we currently have no clue what is on the end of every fork, and, perhaps even more so, what is at the bottom of every glass.
The whiskey world is awash with the smoke and mirrors of marketing – terms like artisan, small batch, craft; they mean absolutely nothing, yet are attached to each new brand as though they are reinventing the wheel. All over Ireland and the UK there are brands that are making misleading and often false claims about what they are, who made it and where. All of this is seen as simply being part of ‘the game’ – a comfortable untruth that most of the industry goes along with. However, there is one man who has been battling for more than a decade in his attempts to reconnect us with the origins of our spirit.
Mark Reynier was a third generation wine merchant on a cycling holiday in Scotland when he decided to visit the home of one of his favourite whiskies – Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay. Reynier cycled up to the gates of the distillery, only to find them locked with a sign reading ‘plant closed – no visitors!’
Spotting a security guard patrolling the yard, Reynier waved to him and asked if they could have a look around. The guard’s reply was a succinct ‘fuck off’. And off Reynier did fuck – but when he returned, he came with investors, capital, the keys to the plant and a dream to bring the distillery back to life using 200-year-old methods. Enlisting the help of local distilling legend Jim McEwan, he created one of the most iconic whisky brands of the modern era – a spirit born of centuries old distilling methods, yet fresh, brash, brave and bold.
However, the most revolutionary ethos of Bruichladdich was its dedication to terroir – a term previously used mostly in wine circles, meaning the microclimate that leads to differing flavour profiles of different vineyards. Reynier experimented wildly with Bruichladdich, but it was his celebration of the humble barley grain and the land that bore it that was the most memorable of all.
Bruichladdich’s legend grew and grew, and eventually the fiercely independent brand was sold to drinks giant Remy Cointreau. But, in typically contradictory fashion, Reynier voted against the sale – even though it made him a wealthy man. He wasn’t ready to sell, he said at the time; he still had more to do, more to give the distilling world. Shortly after the sale he disappeared, like Kaiser Soze, with no one knowing if the whisky world had seen the last of him. That he reappeared some time later was not the big shock; it was rather, where he reappeared that caused the most surprise.
Nestled on the south-east coast of Ireland, Waterford is the country’s oldest city. A compact and bijou urban space situated above the confluence of the Three Sisters, it is a city of outsiders: Settled by the vikings in 932AD, its name is derived from the Nordic ‘Vadrarfjordr’ – the fjord of the rams, a fitting name given that this city is home to its own indigenous herd of feral goats. The goats do not go back that far, but rather came with the Huguenots three centuries ago, along with the city’s legendary Blaa, a type of doughy roll. The goats live on Bilberry Rock, a high outcrop overlooking the city, and right beneath their hooves lies Mark Reynier’s new project; Waterford Distillery.
Reynier bought the old Waterford Guinness brewery from Diageo for a sum that is rumoured to be considerably smaller than the 40 million it was worth. What he got for his money was a recently renovated brewery, which he then converted into a distilling powerhouse in a few short months, rehiring some of the staff who had been laid off by Diageo. On his Twitter he posted regular updates from the redevelopment, and proved that his success with Bruichladdich had not lessened his ability to be an uber enfant terrible. In interviews he bemoaned the lack of ‘mindfuckery’ in Irish whiskey, slammed the monopolies by massive firms, and generally rattled cages and ruffled feathers in a scene that was previously rather chummy. Just as he did on Islay, Reynier revelled in his outsider status – like Camus’s anti-hero Meursault, he came across as a man who had enough of the lies, the deceit and the conceits. But beneath all the bluster, there was a very serious plan being put in place.
As the plant was being re-engineered, Reynier was out walking through fields and talking to farmers about grains, soils, yields and dreams. He put in place a network of farms along the east coast who would supply him with barley for his spirit, taking his twin ethos of terroir and provenance to an almost forensic level. But which came first – the desire to make whiskey in Ireland, or the lure of the deal of the century?
“Ireland,” he says immediately; “and I’m enjoying every minute of it here. It was two things that brought me – one was an old boy at Bruichladdich, Duncan McGillivary. I can vividly remember him sitting on a wall on a sunny afternoon, saying that the best barley he ever saw in his career – and he had been there for 35 years – came from Waterford port. And it always stuck in my mind. Of course, here you are two hundred miles nearer the equator than Islay – Cambridge is on the same latitude. The climate is milder, so barley was the big draw.
“Scotland, whisky-wise, I had been there, seen it, done it. So there was a chance to make a mark in Ireland, because the whisky industry seems to me to be just all over the place. So all that was intriguing and seductive – and at least it’s not like the 110 major distilleries in Scotland.
“Finally, of course, it was to do with this extraordinary place being available. It took us just a year and four days to get going – it would take three years at least to set up a distillery from scratch. But I came here for the barley primarily.”
And as for the culture shock of moving to Ireland, he was well prepared: “Having dragged my wife and son from Sussex up to Bruichladdich, on the remote, wild and windy Hebridean island of Islay – a Gaelic island – not Scottish, Gaelic – that was pretty difficult; an extreme contrast. The parameters which define oneself, the habitat, the ecosystem, friends – they all go out the window; we basically said goodbye to our previous life.
“The way I explained it once was, it is a bit like you have been invited as the star guest appearance on Eastenders, and you turn up on set, but you have never watched Eastenders, you have no idea who’s having sex with who; who was murdered, beaten up or shunned, who is cohabiting, or has those ‘extended family’ connections with who, because you have never seen the previous episodes, let alone the last series. It’s of course one-sided because everyone knows everything about you.
“And it’s not just a few months but hundreds of years. One time, I wanted something delivered to my house, and it never got delivered and I couldn’t understand why. It turned out that the delivery guy, his grandfather had once an argument with the person who owned the track to my house, and he wouldn’t travel down it. And this was a hundred years later. I still have a house there in Islay and I love being there, we all do.
“But one of the best things about here is that I have had so much fun with these guys, where one can just talk and joke without fear of offence. And that has been a really rewarding experience. We started here implementing what we wanted to do, right from day one, with an enthusiasm, open-mindedness and alacrity.”
Reynier has now started distilling individual spirit from individual farms, and can track the differences accordingly; in a scene filled with obfustication and untruths, he is now in the unique position of being able to say ‘this is the field, this is the grain, and this is the spirit they created’.
To emphasise the focus on barley, Waterford Distillery has no master distiller – but it does have a master brewer. Lisa Ryan was one of the staff laid off by Diageo when the brewery closed, and her rehiring meant Reynier brought in someone not just with experience of high-end brewing, but who would be a system native; there would be no learning the ropes, just down to work from day one. Reynier says his structure is a more realistic, practical arrangement: “We have a distillery manager, head brewer, chief engineer and head distiller. Each relies on the other – buildings, barley, machines, spirit – and the responsibilities are equally divided.”
The plant had been used by Diageo to create the concentrate from which overseas Guinness is made, so it obviously needed some adjustments – the largest of those adjustments being the acquisition of stills. But this was another piece of the puzzle that slotted into place. When Reynier was in his early days with Bruichladdich, a friend of his known as Demolition Dave (a slight misnomer as he is now one of the investors behind Waterford Distillery) tipped him off about something special lurking within the soon-to-be-levelled Dumbarton grain distillery.
Secreted away inside this massive industrial grain-distilling operation were two small pot stills – known as the Inverleven stills. Reynier saw an opportunity, bought the stills and shipped them to Islay, where he intended to use them to revamp and restart Port Charlotte distillery, close to Bruichladdich. They never made it there, but one did adorn the front garden of Bruichladdich – with a pair of wellie boots sticking out the top. So when he bought Waterford, he knew where to get two stills to skip the potential three-year wait for Forsyths of Rothes – the Rolls Royce of still makers – to create new ones. Forsyths did play a hand, upgrading and mending the stills, and then they were installed, and brought to life, in the south east of Ireland, all ready to make a spirit that reflected their design – elegant yet full-bodied, delicate yet strong.
“Every distiller likes to have their own-designed stills, it’s the personal flourish of any new distillery, but we know what these stills can do – we know what the style will be we can determine what goes in, of course, how the stills are run, but the weight of the spirit is determined by that still shape.
“If you have very tall, narrow-necked stills, you will produce a very floral, elegant spirit. If you have very short, dumpy stills you will have a heavy, oily spirit – and there is nothing you can do about it. Laphroaig, for example, can never ever ever produce a light, floral spirit because they have short, dumpy stills. You can’t change it. That is how it’s going to be. We know that these Inverleven stills are going to produce a floral spirit, because of their shape. So then the question is – how are you going to run them? And we have the facilities here to produce very, very good-quality wort and wash, clinically the best – you can’t do anything better. So then it is a question of how slowly we run those stills, and because we have all this space and the control we can run everything exactly as we please.”
That space may be getting a little smaller, as there are plans to order four more stills from Forsyths over the next five years. Clearly, this is not a short-term venture.
What strikes you first about Waterford Distillery is the scale of it – on approach it is dwarfed by the hulking, quartz-riddled presence of Bilberry Rock. But once you get close, you begin to grasp just how massive it is. A modern, elliptical frontage houses much of the current operation, while to the rear is an old brewery, crying out to be transformed into a visitor’s centre.
Beyond is the Barley Cathedral, where the grain from each farm, each field has their own storage space. This allows Waterford to create a single field, single farm, single cask, single distillery, single malt. You could probably throw ‘single master brewer’ in there too, given that one of the farmers supplying them is Lisa Ryan’s father. And as they have the capability to propagate their own yeast, you might as well throw in ‘single single-celled fungus’. Although that might not look so appealing on the label.
Along with all those capabilities, they also have an evaporator – with which they can make single grain spirit. So is he going to?
“No. Single malt is what I want to do – single malt, single malt, single malt.”
And no pot still whiskey, or as he calls it, mixed-mash: “Why would you want to mix the mash, when you’ve got the greatest barley in the world? Why on earth do you want to compromise it?”
Maybe as a nod to Ireland, or even just as a cash-in, I suggest.
“Who says it’s a nod to Ireland?”
Isn’t it an Irish tradition, a traditional style of whiskey made here?
“A tradition which they also use in Canada, America, and all over the world. So there is nothing unique about it at all. The fact that Pernod say this style of whiskey ‘is’ Ireland, is purely for their marketing, they want to own it because they have most of it. There’s no real evidence that this is the definitive Irish style, we know that people were making single malt back in the 19th Century too. Besides, the terminology is a nonsense; internationally, what does “pot still” mean to a whisky consumer? It means an inanimate, dumpy copper vessel used for distilling whisky rather than a mix of malted and cheaper, unmalted barley with some maize or rye bunged in.
“But it’s an intellectual proposition – why do you want to make a dumbed-down version? Why?”
So that is how he sees pot still whiskey – a dumbed-down single malt?
“Single malt is the most complex spirit in the world, flavour compound wise. If you drink a blended whiskey, all that flavour you get isn’t the grain whiskey, the grain is there to stretch the flavour. Analytically, we know that single malt is the most complex spirit. It is the reason why kids, when they drink spirits when their parents are away when they are 16 and get hammered, they never touch whiskey ever again. They will drink vodka again; they drink cognac again; they drink calvados again; but they won’t touch whiskey because the flavour – their brain remembers it, because there was so much of it. You don’t see winos hoovering down single malt whiskey – or whiskey. You see them hoovering down vodka.”
So if he had been offered a third still for free, so he could triple distill – again, in the Irish style – would he have taken it?
“No, no, but you can triple distill with two stills too. We might do a bit for fun. But by distilling up to 80% rather than 70% you are just losing more body and flavour. We triple-distilled a bit at Bruichladdich and several Scottish malts are triple-distilled. Anyone can do it.
“In Ireland you have that habit of beer and chaser – that’s how whiskey was enjoyed – so the more straight-forward, accessible it was, the better. Perhaps the lowland Scottish distilleries got the custom of triple distillation from 19-century Irish immigrants? Whereas you don’t see people in pubs drinking single malt, even in Scotland – unless they’re tourists. It is a more elite, expensive thing. But it used to be primarily a component of blends. Very few people back then drank it as a single malt and if they did it was as new spirit straight off the still.”
So the evaporator may not be used for single grain; it will be used another way – to reduce the pot ale for shipping as pig feed. Less water in it means less weight, ergo less cost.
“We have a fancy vacuum-operated column still called a Sigmatec. I didn’t really know at the time I bought the place what it was. Guinness used it to de-alcoholise – or strip – stout. Talking with engineers I asked if it could do the reverse and they said yes. With a few tweaks and adjustments, some re-piping, and voila: a state-of-the-art column still. But my interests don’t lie there. This project is intellectually and financially focused on single malt. However, it’s a reassuring back-up to have up your sleeve.”
Likewise there will be no white spirits, and definitely no selling sourced whiskey under his own branding, a tactic used by the majority of new distilleries in Ireland to generate revenue. However, it is also a practise that has been abused, with some independent bottlers playing fast and loose with their marketing material, and striving to create the illusion that they distilled the product themselves.
“Well this is Ireland’s big problem. And it isn’t going to solve itself, I fear. There isn’t the interest or the will within the industry it seems to me to do anything about it. There isn’t the money to enforce regulations, even ones for the common good, because at present you have only Pernod Ricard, Jose Cuervo, William Grant and that’s it. The IWA (Irish Whiskey Association) isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the Scotch Whisky Association (which incidentally represents the whole spirits industry, not just Scotch). I don’t see it having the mandate or the power to bring much-need discipline to labels, presentations, marketing material and claims, that will build the much-needed credibility of the Irish whisky sector.
“Abroad, if you ask whisky drinkers about Irish whiskey I’m afraid you’ll find there is not a great deal of trust. That confidence has to be earned. Sure there is a huge enthusiasm now in the Irish whiskey sector, but there is also perhaps, shall we say, a certain naivety, too. In the absence of clearly defined, acceptable practices, there are some bottlers that play fast and loose if not with the actual rules (there aren’t yet many) but certainly the spirit of them.
“If you go to the duty free at Dublin Airport and they have more than 100 Irish whiskeys, but they are from just three distilleries, but you’d swear blind with all the master distillers listed on those labels there were at least fifty distilleries producing all that hooch.
“But I’m a libertarian at heart. Look – to a degree I can understand all this wild-west approach, after all I used to be an independent bottler myself once. Ours is a heads-down, get on with it no nonsense operation and sod ‘em all.
“In Scotland, an authoritative SWA provides the necessary guidelines to protect the reputation which every one for the greater good follows. It isn’t onerous or police state stuff; it is common sense. I certainly had my run-ins with them when we didn’t see eye to eye. But here it is a wee bit more freestyle, more individualistic shall we say, and I don’t really see it changing any time soon. But it needs to.
“I can already hear the “coming over here telling us what to do” complaints, but there is a truly great opportunity for Irish whiskey. A reset button has been pushed. These are exciting times. But equally a regulatory framework needs to be constructed too, to guide, to keep us all on the straight and narrow. It isn’t onerous; it’s not finicky; it ain’t Big Brother. It is for the greater glory of Irish whiskey.
“Some of the marketing spin is mere over-exuberance, some of it is deliberately disingenuous, and some of it is naivety. Some of it is outright fraudulent. But I don’t see anybody having either the will, the foresight, the authority or the money to challenge it. That’s why I am focussed on what we are doing here, doing my own thing.”
But given that Ireland is in a ‘wild west’ state – being as it is in a state of rapid rebirth and expansion, a new frontier for this generation – Reynier has some suggestions on what a new sheriff might look like.
“The Irish Government should say ‘right, we shouldn’t get involved, because we are short-term politicians, here today, gone tomorrow; equally, the industry should not be involved because they have got interests that are non compatible – remember the banks and self-regulation? – but we should do what France does with Champagne; create an apolitical body in between the industry and the politicians which is a civil servant-run to represent the long-term interests of Ireland and not powerful industry players nor biddable politicians’.
“It says ‘Product of Ireland’ and “Irish Whiskey” on the label, so somebody should be representing Ireland’s interests.
“This council would agree with the Irish Whiskey Association with a set of guidelines and procedure – the SWA has it all already – which should be applied to the whole industry, It is important to get this sort of thing sorted now it will be much harder to retrofit once the horse has bolted.”
One of the logbooks tracking the farms supplying the distillery.
Given the startling quality of his barley network, it comes as no surprise that his wood policy is equally ambitious – and just as honest.
“We don’t need to experiment with casks, I know exactly what is needed. We have the same policy for every farm, so again it is experience – I know what works. At Bruichladdich we had to do a lot of remedial work because when we first started we couldn’t afford good oak and our accountant undervalued the influence of the oak, or rather good-quality oak, and if you haven’t got the money to buy the barley then you haven’t got the money to buy good oak – it’s an industry-wide issue. Wood is the first thing that gets cut from a struggling budget. And of course wood values in recent years has doubled. The importance of good quality oak is now more important than ever.”
Important – yet expensive, and across the industry there are plenty of ‘innovations’ in the area of wood that no one dares talk about: “Ultrasound, music, heat, oak essence, de-charr, re-charr, tannin injection – all sorts of remedial shortcuts are available – and caramel of course.”
You can assume he isn’t going down that route: “Certainly not! So we set this company up with a very healthy budget for wood – almost the same as the barley. Now if you go back a few years ago, wood represented 10% of production costs, it is more than 40% for us, and I defy you to find anybody in the whole whiskey industry that has that budget ratio. I know from experience there is no shortcut for great quality raw ingredients and time. And that includes the wood.
“We are investing this huge sum because I know that if you are going unplugged, making natural whiskey, then there are no shortcuts – you’ve got to have good quality wood. We are making an artisanal, natural product, hence we have total traceability, beyond parallel, to prove everything we do. There is no compromise: What we say is what we do. We mean it.”
But all this dedication to the product is an added expense: “Of course it is. But by the time it gets into bottle, in five or ten years time, it is a relatively small amount; it has cashflow repercussions now, but by the time we get to market it will not make a difference in the bigger scheme of things.”
Looking into the future brings up the subject of just how many distilleries Ireland can take before it hits full capacity – clearly the full number touted by the IWA will not make it to production, many were pipe dreams that are already falling by the wayside. But there are currently roughly 20 either operational or getting there. So how many is too many? How many more can one island take?
“No more, in fact there are too many. There will be tears before bedtime. Some people optimistically think ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to have a distillery’ but the cheap bit is building it, the expensive bit is running it, and the even-more expensive bit is bringing it to market. That’s where there will be a big reckoning: I wonder if the marketplace is big enough to handle not just Ireland’s start-ups but more from the US, the UK and other countries too.”
For anyone interested in the highs and lows of starting a distillery, they can look no further than Reynier’s Twitter feed. With typically caustic honesty, it presents the failures alongside the successes; if equipment broke during the refit, it was tweeted, along with information about disappointing yields from some grain, disagreements between head brewer and distillery manager over the characteristics of new-make spirit – all there for the world to see. His messages are the antithesis of the sanitised, corporate message from most distillers.
“Well you can’t separate the good from the bad, when things go right they go right, and then sometimes they don’t. For example, we were tasting some new spirits the others day, and some of them were good, some were very good, and some were a bit dull – well that’s fine and that is out there in the world.
“If you’re going unplugged – I can’t see how you can just go a little bit unplugged; you either are or you are not. Everything I have ever done has been unplugged – whether it was in the wine industry or Bruichladdich, so I think philosophically it is where I am happy at.
“I also think that globally there is an anti ‘big food, big drink’ thing going on; people have got too bored. You go out the door here to a pub and there is no-one in there, and you have no choice; either a stout or a lager, and you have to ask – why bother, if they are all selling the same thing, the same way? In the old days it was the craic that got the people in, but there is nobody in the pubs now.”
And just as the Irish pub has been struggling against a generational shift and the decline it has wrought, distillers lament the duty laws here, claiming they are crippling the industry. Not so, says Reynier: “It is higher than Scotland but it is the same for everybody – whether it is gin, vodka, poitín, it is the same. So you are only in a comparative field. It is what always makes me laugh every time there is a budget the SWA go on about duty and stuff and you think ‘well hang on a second, 90% of it is exported, so nobody pays duty on that at all’.”
Mark Reynier is extraordinary company, a complex spirit full of seemingly contradictory elements – profound yet profane, combative yet charming, witty and deadly serious all at once. He comes across as a man utterly frustrated with the spirits world whilst still passionately in love with it. Throughout the couple of hours I spent with him, he did not sit down once; he paced the room, gesticulating as he made his points, constantly moving, forever restless.
Mark Gillespie describes the maverick Texan distiller Chip Tate as being the Steve Jobs of the distilling world. If that is the case, then Mark Reynier is that world’s Stanley Kubrick; an auteur who refuses to work within the system, a creative visionary who is utterly unwilling to compromise, who is almost obsessively dedicated to craft, to the pursuit of perfection. He is a man intent on destroying the status quo, compelled to point out that the emperor wears no clothes. His attitude to life reminds me of the motto of another outsider who came here from Scotland to build a distilling empire; sine metu – without fear. When I ask him if he thinks he might have ruffled some feathers since his arrival here, he smiles and says “Oh I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so.”
Ultimately, what makes Mark Reynier an outsider is not where he comes from, but rather that – like Camus’s weary homme du midi – he is simply a man who is no longer willing to play the game. This project is about change, disruption, evolution: Why should he doff the cap, bend the knee or even spell whiskey with an ‘e’? His is a singular vision – of Ireland being the home of the world’s greatest single malt, and his distillery is celebrating the soil and grain of Ireland, the farmers who work the land.
Reynier firmly believes he is fighting for the pride of Ireland, and that the honesty and transparency of his whisky, when released in five years time, will offer us a novel experience – a frozen moment when every Irish whiskey drinker truly sees what is at the end of every glass, knowing exactly where it came from, who made it and why – and, for the first time in a long time, we will be able to enjoy a truly naked dram.