I have a thing for Scotland. I’m not sure where it came from, but my dad probably had a lot to do with it. He loved history, especially Irish and Scottish, and would often talk about the general injustices meted out to the Scots by our common enemy. He viewed Scotland as being another Ireland (but never saw Ireland as another Scotland) and fostered in me the improbable notion that there is an unspoken kinship between our people, some ancient celtic bloodline that bound us. In retrospect, I think at least some of his affinity for the Scots was their Not-Englishness – born in the early years of the Irish state to the children of Famine survivors, he was a product of his times. But he also just liked the Scots. It was as simple, pure, and utterly nonsensical as that; all natives of Scotland were deemed to be ‘good eggs’ by him. Dennis Nilsen, Ian Brady, Edward Longshanks, The Scunner Campbell – a great bunch of lads.
So I grew up with a fondness for Scotland that was firmly in place long before I first visited the country in the Nineties. I’ve eulogised Edinburgh on this blog many, many times, but my love for the city isn’t based on any real understanding of it. It’s a series of brief encounters with the place, spread over several decades. I show up, eat, drink, and be merry, then leave. The roadworks never bother me – although I would question why they appear to be taking longer than the completion of La Sagrada Familia but with less impressive results – and neither does the high cost of living. I’m just a tourist, there for a good time.
So while I always jump in with a frighteningly enthusiastic ooooh I love Scotland any time the country gets mentioned, the fact is I know almost nothing of the place. In my mind I have a showreel of things I love about it – highlands, islands, castles – with a soundtrack by Idlewild, Twilight Sad, Mogwai, Glasvegas. Throw Ratcatcher, Braveheart, Local Hero into the pot too. It’s like a weird fetish. Even my rhapsodising about How Late It Was How Late or Edwin Morgan makes me sound like the banter boys from Chewin’ The Fat. The Scotland I love doesn’t exist anywhere outside my head. It’s a vague notion of a place built from books, films, TV, and occasional flaneurial sojourns to the country.
My love of whisky has only made this condition worse, and has also turned me into something of a Quisling, crowing about the greatness of Scottish whisky whilst occasionally pouring scorn on our domestic product. But a healthy domestic whiskey scene is one that can take the hits, that can withstand scrutiny and is one which has nothing to hide, not least in terms of where the stuff is actually being made.
This is Irish whiskey’s year zero. The old order, the great houses, the romantic icons and legends of yore are dead and gone, they are with with O’Leary in the grave. We had a rich prehistory of distilling, and then a long, sad decline. Much of the last century was spent trying to simply survive, with only Bushmills, Cooley and Midleton left to keep the flame lit. In that period, everything changed – a lot of our heritage and tradition was effectively forgotten, or lost. The past decade has seen a reversal of our fortunes (largely due, ironically enough, to one of the last great houses – Jameson) but for the vast majority of the Irish whiskey scene, there is little direct lineage back to the olden times. You can mourn the loss, or see this as an opportunity to start anew, unburdened of history. So we can build this as we go, and our friends across the water can be a blueprint on how to elevate whisky to the point where it is part of our identity. Whisky is Scotland’s national drink – they have an entire category that is synonymous with their country, and their people, whereas we only have one brand, one style, as our national drink – Guinness.
Anyone who has been on whisky trips will tell you just how ingrained in the culture whisky is in Scotland. This aura of whisky is captured in the documentary The Amber Light, which explores Scotland through the prism of their national drink and how it has permeated music, art, culture, and memory, with whisky writer Dave Broom as host, guide and subject.
The director of The Amber Light is Adam Park, so as the film landed on Netflix this year, I thought I would ask how it came about, starting with his own history: “I bounced around quite a lot as a kid but moved to Dublin from South Africa when I was 11 or so, and lived in the city until I was 22. Mostly hanging out and DJ-ing at clubs like the Funnel and Switch, heavily into music and making videos. Those are my two loves. So I moved to London to study film, started at the bottom and worked my way up, really.”
The making of The Amber Light was fuelled by crowdfunding, something which Park says was the plan from the beginning.
“It served a number of functions; not just to raise cash but also to build an audience and act as a bit of marketing to get the word out. A sort of built-in PR story. As challenging as it was, I’d not entirely dissuade people from going down that route, depending on the project.
“Then the rest of the budget was pulled together from a few other sources, mostly private, and there’s the BFI tax credit for production which comes in once the film is finished to hopefully fill in some of the gaps.
“It’s not impossible to get funding, but yes it’s pretty hard. It’s very chicken-and-egg. There are pockets of money and it’s accessible with a combination of access, luck, experience and having the right project. It’s a little easier from country to country, some cultures place more importance on this kind of stuff than others, so it can become a political football.”
And despite the well-documented difficulties in getting funding for film – or simply getting a film made – Park and his team did not want to take money from the whisky industry itself.
“We were very careful from the beginning not to take booze money, for editorial reasons. We tried very hard to ensure the film was brand agnostic, which I think we succeeded in. Obviously we couldn’t do it without mentioning the big whisky firms, but I’m happy with the balance we achieved.”
So what lessons, if any, does Park think we could learn from the Scots on whisky, given that we are effectively at the start of our journey whereas the Scots are two centuries into theirs.
“I’m not entirely sure how much Ireland should learn from Scotch whisky, to be honest. If there is, it’s mostly a question of perspective. And I’m not sure I agree that Ireland is at the start of its journey. Jameson and Bushmills, for example – an interesting dichotomy there, that touches on so much of Irish history, even ignoring the sometimes odd mythology that has built up around it.
“I am no expert on process and the actual making of the spirit, but it strikes me that there’s as much richness in story in Ireland as there is in Scotland. Anywhere that has a strong cultural connection to spirits, like Mexico, Caribbean, Kentucky, it’s going to touch on all sorts of things because it’s been there so long, and it’s been bringing people together for so long, helping to build community and become part of the culture.
“There’s also so much that Ireland and Scotland share; not just whisk(e)y, but culturally, in language, music, and so on. Literature. Poetry. A love of self-flagellation. It is an interesting point that Ireland’s drink really is Guiness rather than stout, which maybe it should be. But that as in most things is down to clever branding people somewhere along the way. As ever, business decisions can be fundamental to success (though not always – Scotch has had ups and downs and circumstance can take a lot of credit for where they sit today), no more so than in Irish whiskey. And at the moment where the Scots got it right, the Irish didn’t, but are now going through a bit of a renaissance.”
There are a few films about whisky – documentaries which veer from the po-faced, hyper-reverential visual essays to Brigadoonesque, tartan-soaked sales pitches. Dramatic films usually only feature it as a flimsy narrative device that offers little to the true nerd. The Amber Light is a film on whisky as much as a film about whisky – it frames Scotland’s national drink as muse, as landscape, as sound. Is it an accurate portrayal? This I could not say – it feeds into my amber-tinted views of the Scotland I claim to know, but show it to an actual Scot and they may see a completely alien place.
The question it left me with was how long will it take before Ireland could make a similar film; how long before the words national drink bring to mind something other than a big black and white pint; how long until Irish whiskey has soaked down into art and literature in the same way it has in Scotland? And what will it take to achieve that?
The dancefloor of Auntie Annie’s indie club in Belfast seems like an unlikely setting for the start of a Northern Irish distilling success story, but it was there in 2006 where David Armstrong and Fiona Boyd first locked eyes. David, an aerospace engineer, and Fiona, a property surveyor, connected immediately over their shared love for all things food and drink, but it was Fiona who dreamed of starting a distillery, as David explains: “The idea for the distillery belongs wholly to Fiona. Fiona had been reading about the lost distilleries of Ireland, I think it was the Townsend book, around the time her family took on Rademon Estate and at that time she had mentioned to her father about building a distillery. He immediately dismissed the idea, told her she was crazy and to keep doing what she knew.
“But Fiona, just like her father [Northern Ireland property developer Frank Boyd], knows her mind and some years later when we got married in 2011 we both knew we wanted to own and manage our own business. We are both so passionate about food and drink, the food scene on the island of Ireland and, locally for us in County Down, is world class. Ideally, we would have loved a vineyard in France but as we live in County Down and not Bordeaux, Fiona again suggested a distillery and I naively said yes.
“From 2011 to 2013 during every holiday and weekend we travelled the world doing distilling classes and visiting distilleries; we ordered our first still in January 2013, it arrived summer 2013, then we undertook recipe development whilst continuing in our day jobs, eventually we both left our jobs in 2014 and we launched Shortcross Gin in April 2014, so we celebrated eight years as a distillery this April.”
If that makes it all sound easy, it isn’t; while many distilleries built on the island of Ireland in the past decade use sourced stock as a revenue generator, Rademon opted not to.
“To be honest, if you asked me in 2014 to go out and source an Irish whiskey I don’t feel I would have been the right person to do it. We always believed that you need to learn your trade, this is important for me personally having served an apprenticeship, so we focused on learning how to make and understand our own whiskey in the first instance. We are at heart a craft distillery – we only sell what we produce, and that is an important ethos for us.”
Fortunate then that their gin was such a success, winning multiple awards and spreading out to sizable markets such as the US and Canada. The distillery even produced a special limited edition gin with a royal touch – Hillsborough Castle and Gardens Shortcross edition features rose petals handpicked from Queen Elizabeth II’s Granville Rose Garden at Hillsborough Castle – the queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. Shortcross is also the official gin of Royal Down Racecourse (Fiona’s mother Rose is well known in equestrian circles as the co-owner of the legendary Hurricane Fly).
But their gins aren’t simply a money-spinnner for Rademon while they wait for the whiskey to mature.
“Gin has become a byword by the media as a means to an end for new distilleries, we would love to invite those people to come and work at the distillery for the day to see the effort that goes into creating Shortcross Gin. We love gin and to make a great gin you need to be passionate about it.
“The skills we have learnt from gin have been key to creating our whiskey, namely the ability to nose and taste flavours and put them all together.”
As the gin became a success in its own right, they started to look into making whiskey.
“In 2014 we were in the US and visiting distilleries when we had the realisation that to grow the distillery we would need to look at other categories. Now, one thing about both of us is that we believe you should only make what you love, and over the previous two years I had started to get into whiskey, particularly malt whiskey, following a tasting of Connemara Turf Mór at Belfast International Airport. That tasting blew my mind and I was determined that we should make malt whiskey and with that, some with plenty of smoke too. We began distilling whiskey in our 450-litre copper pot still in 2015 and filled our first casks in August 2015 and continue to do so today.”
The inaugural Rademon Estate Distillery whiskey was released late last year – Shortcross Irish Whiskey, a double-distilled, five-year-old single malt, matured fully in Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux Red Wine casks before being finished in chinquapin oak – the first time this cask combination was used in Irish whiskey. It takes a patient person to wait to the five-year mark when it could legally be sold at three, but David felt it was worth it (and there was the small matter of a global pandemic).
“If Covid hadn’t arrived, we would have done something in 2020 but having the space to let things mature a little longer has allowed us to craft a release we can really be proud of. Personally, we thought the five-year mark, well actually it’s almost six years, was a good point to release this. The balance was just there in the whiskey and we knew it was good, so Fiona and I knew it was the right time to go for it. You have to believe in yourself and the liquid, bringing together the joy of seven years’ hard work of getting to this huge moment in time of releasing your very own whiskey.”
Obviously there was a lot of excitement for whiskey lovers – this was a release that was a long time coming – and then it won Best New Irish Whiskey at the Irish Whiskey Awards last year.
“To win the award was mind blowing. I was also known to have shed a tear that evening, it was the culmination of seven years hard work to put our very own Shortcross whiskey out there, that I single handedly worked on from mashing in, fermenting, distilling and filling the casks. We entered the awards without anyone having tasted it or giving us a nod that we were on the right path. We were overwhelmed by the positive response and support we received following the award.”
But along with the giddy highs, there was the reaction to the price – stg£300 – in the whiskey community.
“There was a small collective of negativity on social media, that just did not give up and became so vitriolic. I don’t think you could ever please these people and that says more about them than it does about us. Our first ever release was a small, limited release of less than 700 bottles, 656 in total. Two casks. It was a momentous and historic moment, Shortcross was the first Irish whiskey to be wholly distilled and released by a new Irish whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland since the 1920s and the first new Irish whiskey to be released outside of the Old Bushmills Distillery since the closure of Old Comber and Coleraine distilleries. It breaks the chain of Bushmills-only releases and that is something really important in the rebirth of the industry in Northern Ireland.”
But while the first release was limited and had a pricetag to reflect that, their next release is both affordable, available, and intriguing, as David explains.
“We like to do things a little differently so our second release is something completely different – Shortcross Rye & Malt Irish Whiskey. This coincided with a couple of things that happened in 2017 and then ultimately ended up with us visiting rye whiskey distilleries in Maryland, which is the birthplace of American Rye whiskey.
“When we got back to the distillery we began to explore how we could create a rye-influenced Irish whiskey, after many iterations and failings along the way we found that the best way for what we wanted to achieve this was to use malted rye rather than raw rye to amplify the fruit notes and tame the spice.
“The whiskey starts life with a mash bill of 30% to 50% malted rye and the remainder malted barley. The wash is fermented for 140 to 160 hours, allowing time for a secondary fermentation to kick in. This helps create flavour from the very start of the process, through distillation and on to maturation. We then double distil the spirit on our 450L and 1,750L copper pot stills, with the 450L being one of the smallest stills used for whiskey on the island of Ireland.
“For maturation we used a combination of first fill ex-bourbon casks and also virgin chinkapin oak casks, which create rich flavours of fudge, stem ginger and spice.
“It’s a great whiskey and one we are seriously proud of. We can’t wait now to see it in the wild and in the hands of whiskey drinkers.”
Thanks to the generosity of Rademon, a bottle of it is now in the hands of this whiskey drinker. So what to think: All of the above, nutmeg, spice, hints of mace and whispers of aniseed; heather and manuka honey. Sweet, smooth, spicy. For a first release it holds excellent promise, although that is probably damning it with faint praise. But it is an important whiskey, for all the historic and cultural reasons listed above.
There are distilleries all over the island of Ireland that get a lot of attention – some spend a fortune on PR, some are controversial, some are just loud. There are others who are quiet. This, for me, has been part of the intrigue with Rademon – a distillery that is just quietly working away, with no fuss. The fact they never released a sourced whiskey just adds to their mystique; no resurrected brand from the days of yore, no press releases spoofing on about heritage, just a distillery quietly making gin and whiskey – new, fresh, interesting. The fact they opted to release a rye and malt whiskey as their first widely available release shows a confidence – they also have a peated 50PPM whiskey so they don’t seem overly concerned with creating a potentially polarising product.
The rye and malt more than lives up to my expectations – it’s an interesting, easy drinker, but more importantly it is something new; this isn’t some murkily rebranded West Cork Distillers/Great Northern/Bushmills/Cooley whiskey that somehow, no matter the finish, always tastes more or less the same. This is a new sensation – a new Irish whiskey, a new Northern Irish whiskey, and one that was worth the wait.
Rademon Estate Distillery’s Shortcross Rye & Malt Whiskey is available from their webshop – 46%, non-chill filtered and all natural colour, it is priced at stg£65.
Glendalough Distillery is one of the success stories of the Irish whiskey resurgence. Founded in 2011 by a group of friends, their prominence in the media came from a combination of being early adopters of an exciting new trend and some high profile investors. One could also say that the business’s proximity to the Dublin media bubble helped (along with the team’s own media savvy), but their brand and their story was always strong – little wonder, given that several of the founders worked in branding, marketing, and advertising for some heavy hitters like Tullamore DEW and Jameson (another two of the founders were data analysts for Davy Stockbrokers). But beyond the brand, and the narrative, I knew little of Glendalough, but here is what I do know:
I’ve never been clear about the rest of the Glendalough story, despite co-founder Brian Fagan getting in touch in 2018 to explain a bit about where they were in their journey. He told me that they bought a site on Glendalough Green in 2016 and were considering their options about what size and style of distillery to build there. He said that they would have planning in place by the end of that year, but that in the meantime they were ordering more Holstein stills and would be distilling whiskey from their current site (an industrial estate in Newtownmountkennedy) by autumn 2018. In January 2019 Fagan emailed to say their new stills were in situ and were waiting to be commissioned, and that he would give me an update on their plans that I could feature on my blog. I haven’t heard from him since, but then 2019 was something of a momentous year for the firm so maybe it slipped his mind.
“In line with the continued growth in our gin and whiskey portfolio, our ambition remains to develop a new brand home for Glendalough. Plans are progressing well.”
Eagle-eyed readers will note the word distillery does not feature there. And while plans for whatever a ‘brand home’ constitutes may be progressing well, a quick search on the Wicklow County Council planning website shows there have been no plans submitted by Glendalough Distillery or Mark Anthony Brands for either a distillery, or a brand home, or anything, ever.
I also asked them about their distillations of whiskey in the past, and what amount they were distilling now – ie, casks per week – and what age the oldest stock they have of their own whiskey. This was the response:
“We set up whiskey stills a number of years ago, and have ambitious plans for our own liquid. Watch this space…but it takes time and we are patient.”
I also asked what percentage of the whiskey sold under the Glendalough Distillery brand worldwide was actually distilled in Glendalough distillery, and if there was a plan to phase out sourced stock, and if so, when would that happen. This was their response:
“While we continue to distil our award winning gins in Wicklow directly, our Single Malts, Single Grain and Single Pot Still are currently distilled elsewhere in Ireland to Glendalough’s specification. We are happy to be transparent about that and this is stated on our back labels. As mentioned above, we have our own whiskey liquid in the works. We plan to continue to source stocks while waiting on our own whiskey, distilled in Glendalough Distillery in the future. Between now and then, we will continue our relentless search to find the world’s best, rarest, most flavoursome oak to age and finish our whiskeys.”
Frankly, I am no wiser as to what the Glendalough brand is – indie bottler? NDP? ‘Brand’? Their pot still release from a couple of years back was meant to be the start of a transition to their own stock – the reason it’s not single pot still is they hoped to blend their own with it over time. I’m going to assume that transition never happened.
As for their claim about how the sourcing of their whiskey is clearly stated on the labels, this is what they were talking about:
Squint hard, gentle reader, and you will see that it does indeed say ‘produced for Glendalough Distillery’ in there among the jumble of info that nobody ever reads. But another thing I noticed about the bottle is that it no longer has Glendalough Distillery embossed on the glass.
Perhaps this is a sign that they are preparing to transition from aspirational whiskey distillers to a simple whiskey brand. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m not saying the founders are the boys who cried distillery but it does feel like a can was kicked far past the point of reason. I can tolerate whiskey being sold under the brand of a planned distillery, but only for so long. There comes a point where I expect you to piss or get off the pot still, and that point was several years ago.
As for the whiskey within – I had a bottle of the old Glendalough seven a few years back and it was a cracker – very similar to the cask strength Whistler Blue Note. But this Mizunara finished one is a completely different animal – I’m going to assume a different distillery was the source for this. It’s good, odd, not sure I’d be racing out to get myself any other whiskey anointed by the famously awkward Mizunara wood, but it’s a pleasant diversion. A similar price point to the Athru I reviewed recently and I would favour that over this, despite my preference for age statements over NAS. The packaging here is beautiful, but as I said at the start, the branding was always solid – although the Gandalf-esque image of St Kevin is, in fact, crap. A shame really, given that he was their favourite monk.
I did not like La La Land when it came out. It felt like everyone else did, which in itself might have given me unrealistic expectations about how life-changing it might be. Perhaps my nonplussed reaction to it came from the fact that I don’t watch a huge amount of musicals (does anyone any more?). Whatever the reason, I thought it was poor. Nice songs, good cast, let down by meandering plotline and a sense of smug self-satisfaction.
Fast forward to 2020, during one of those rambling scrolls through Netflix I stumbled across it again and thought, well let’s give this a go. It’s relatively PG, so I can stick it on when the kids are about. Why not watch it again on the off chance I missed what everyone else saw, just like I did with Magic Eye paintings, moving statues, and that blue/gold dress? Long story short, La La Land is amazing. Since that second viewing I have watched it again, and again, and again, and loved it more each time. The film didn’t change, but I and the world around me did; I came to it the second time round with no expectations, with a more open mind, and besides, I was now in lockdown and the primary colours and big musical numbers of La La Land was just the escapism I needed. I’m sure there is an irony in the fact that a film about good things happening with bad timing became my top film of the last 12 months, but there you go.
Ardbeg Ten was the first peated whisky I tried. Someone I knew had a bottle and it was clear they were not into it, so they offered it to me. I gave it a try and was struck immediately at how different it was to all the other whiskies I had tried (I almost refused to accept it was whisky, checking the label to make sure, like a drunk in a movie who sees a UFO or talking dog and then throws a bottle over his shoulder). An acrid, smokey tang, it was a thunder bolt for my senses. I genuinely wasn’t ready for peat, especially not at that level of intensity. I was only starting my journey into whisky and frankly this came a little soon. It’s like suddenly being told oh, you like Guns ‘n’ Roses, well how about you try some Pig Destroyer? Like boiling a frog, you gotta do it gradual.
But I still took the bottle away with me (the owner was delighted to see the back of it). I nibbled away at the bottle over the intervening years and while you couldn’t say it changed, I did. Like Alan Patridge’s sudden revelation that, actually, he likes wine, despite all those things he said earlier – I actually really like peat, despite my initial recoil. It’s not the centre of my universe but peat is one of the facets of whisky that is accessible for a casual fan like me. I can taste something and say, yeah, this is peated. I couldn’t tell you cask type, age, mashbill, or anything else, but smoke is one of those things that triggers the primitive parts of our brain – Smoke! Danger! Fire! Warmth! We can all identify smoke. I could be nosing forever to try and guess a single other detail about a whisky, but peat will always make itself known. It is a broad and beautiful brushstroke in any whisky, and, in my experience, I have yet to taste a whisky where I thought wow, they should really dial down the peat here.
I still have that bottle of the ten sat in a press somewhere. I never got around to finishing it, but I have milled through three bottles of Uigideal, which is an absolute gem that I recommend to anyone. Aside from that I don’t know much about Ardbeg, aside from the usual Hunger Games of their committee releases, when Whisky Twitter goes into meltdown in its attempts to secure a bottle. I’m here for the everyman, on-the-shelf-in-the-offie drams, I don’t need to hassle or the drama of trying to get the rare exclusives. I don’t want to have to find the mythical isle of Tortuga, Torbay will do just fine.
So while I like to sound the fanfare for the common dram, I am also comfortable with the odd freebie, which is why I was happy to celebrate Ardbeg Day this year by taking delivery of a free bottle of the ten from my new best friends at The Hive. I assume they are a PR firm and not an invading alien species who think with one mind and whose sole aim is to destroy humanity, but even if they are flesh eating creatures from another galaxy, free booze, amiright?
Ardbeg uses malt peated to a level of 50ppm at the maltings in the village of Port Ellen. It is then milled in Ardbeg’s rare Boby malt mill, installed in 1921.
Water comes from Loch Uigeadail, via Loch Airigh Nam Beist, via Charlie’s Dam at the distillery, and into the mash house.
The washbacks at Ardbeg are made of Oregon pine. Fermentation time is longer than other distilleries because of the high phenolic content of the original malt.
Ardbeg distils twice.
On the Lyne arm of the spirit still at Ardbeg there is a piece of apparatus called a purifier. As the boiling continues in the spirit still, the heavier impure alcohols reach the top of the still (the initial light alcohols are sweet and fruity). Some of the heavier compounds are captured in the purifier and fed back down into the main pot of the still. As the boiling process continues, the heavier phenolics come through, this occurs from about halfway through the spirit run. The purifier gives a little extra reflux, so we have two distillations and a little bit more. The purifier is unique on Islay and balance is the key.
The vast amount of whisky matures in ex-Bourbon oak. In maturation only 1st and 2nd fill casks are used. Their new 1st fill Bourbon casks come from suppliers in the US. Other casks come from Speyside Cooperage, and Craigellachie.
Primarily barrels have been used in the past, but now there is a substantial mix between barrels (for Ardbeg Ten Years Old,) Sherry Butts (some of which are used for Ardbeg Uigeadail), and new French Oak Barrels for Ardbeg Corryvreckan. And these are their three core expressions.
Because Ardbeg sits very close to the sea, the whisky receives a certain salty, iodine character while it matures.
I included that last factoid despite my best judgement as, if I’m honest, I am extremely cynical about maturation location as a factor in flavour. If it’s stuck in a pine forest will it faintly taste of pine? Midleton’s Dungourney warehouse complex is surrounded by pine woods, and I will chortle if they ever claim it gives a pine-fresh Toilet Duck-esque flavour to the whiskey.
So Ardbeg Ten – a dank bass note of a dram, in a bottle with a label that looks like a biker insignia, and tastes like arson. So from that first smokey taste years ago, what do I reckon now?
Nose: Cordite, treacle, liquorice.
Palate: Smoke! Fire! Etc! Fenugreek, caramel, dark chocolate, aniseed.
Finish: Demerara sugar, mint, toffee.
Is Ardbeg Ten the best intro to peat you can have? I would say not – I’d steer any newcomer to one of the more subtle peated drams (always love a Benromach) before this hefty unit. Ardbeg is unashamedly peated, and while I respect that, and while I found my way back to peat over time, not everyone will give it that second chance. But everyone and everything changes – the idea that we spend our lives in some kind of epicurean stasis is a sad one indeed, so here’s to second chances.
We all have a journey to whiskey, but for some, it is a more winding path that guides us here. For Daithí O’Connell, sailor, pilot, and founder of WD O’Connell independent bottlers, the journey was geographical as well as spiritual.
The 40-year-old Carlow native started his career in hospitality aged just 15, working in a local hotel. Four years of that taught him that the 24/7 aspect of that was quite the burden – a 60 hour week commanded the princely sum of thirty púnts, with rent and other expenses on top of that – so he moved into the bar side of hospitality, focussing on the late bar and nightclub scene in McSorleys in Killarney. He then shifted to auctioneering, studying property management and valuation in the College Of Commerce in Cork city. He completed his studies, and found himself working in Mulligans in Cork city. Shortly after he went travelling in Australia, then moved to Denmark and worked in a concrete plant. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the era known as the Celtic tiger was shifting into top gear – the owners of Mulligans, the Rebel Bar Group, were looking for someone to come on board as a partner in one location. O’Connell started back in Ireland with Oscar Madison’s in Kinsale, then Redz in Cork city, and then the Savoy nightclub, which he ran for four years during its heyday. In 2008, Ireland started to change – the Celtic Tiger was ailing and the economy was about to descend into a crushing recession. The Savoy hosted their last gig under his stewardship on New Year’s Eve 2008 and he moved to Australia with his partner 13 days later. Over the next four years his homeland would suffer the worst recession in the history of the state.
In Australia he trained to become a pilot, and was just shy of his commercial license when he moved to Hong Kong in 2010, where he was lured with the prospect of opening a bar with a group of Irish entrepreneurs. He spent five years there – running bars, setting up a boat hire business, and moving into prepay card systems (HK’s Octopus Card being a template). On the back of the latter business he relocated to Dubai, where his firm managed the payment systems for the Sevens, serving more than 150,000 punters across three days.
After building up that business he started looking for a new project, and whiskey was in his sights – 2012 saw the sale of Cooley to Beam and Dingle Distillery firing up the stills. By late 2015 he had a site sorted and was ready to sign contracts with distillers, still makers, maltsters and all the key components of the project. But the globe-trotting and relentless work took its toll. His marriage disintegrated, and he was forced to reassess everything he knew. He moved back to Ireland and shelved the distillery plan. Then came a succession of events – he met a half-Irish German girl named Alina and fell in love, they became parents, his father died after a short illness, and he turned 40. He started working as a consultant with firms looking to upscale, but whiskey was still on his mind. His partner encouraged him to take the risk and follow his passion. In April 2019, he quit his job and threw himself completely into becoming an independent whiskey bottler.
Bottlers are something of a rarity in Ireland – much of this had to do with the scarcity of distilleries. Bottlers need a diverse range – not just of whiskey styles and casks, but of sources. An indie bottler here over the last 20 years would be offering you the products of three distillers – Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, and that was only if they were able to get access to stock from those three.
But in Scotland, indie bottlers are revered as being able to offer unique offerings from well-known, lesser-known and long-dead distilleries. In fact, indie bottlers are so important to Scotch whisky that the late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson said of bottlers Gordon & MacPhail that if it were not for this firm, single malts as we know them would not exist today.
It is in this mould that O’Connell sees his firm – to be the biggest indie bottler in Ireland by 2035. Working with support from Bord Bia he hired a creative agency to design his brand – with his love of flight and sailing, a compass rose forms a central part of the brand, while the rest is based around family.
Now all he needed was some stock, and this is where Dr John Teeling comes in. Dr Teeling was the original disruptor in Irish whiskey – at a time when Bushmills and Midleton were the only whiskey makers on the island, he opened his warehouses to buyers. He forced the other two giants to up their game and watch their corners, and is still doing the same with Great Northern Distillery.
O’Connell has something old and something new from Dr Teeling’s stable – a 17-year-old double-distilled Cooley single malt and a youthful, peated, triple-distilled GND single malt. The 17 was matured in first-fill bourbon for 17 years, then in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and limited to 370 bottles. It is the first ‘PX series’ release, the beginning of a limited series of PX-finished single malt Irish whiskeys.
The GND single malt is a single cask of triple-distilled, peated single malt, matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 47.5% ABV, non-chill filtered and limited to 306 bottles.
It is the first ‘Bill Phil’ release, the start of a series of triple distilled, peated single malt Irish whiskeys. The O’Connells hail from Mountcollins in west Limerick, a small village which has a surprisingly large number of people named O’Connell, so nicknames were required to distinguish between the different families; Dáithí’s ancestors were the Bill Phils, and they specialised in a type of turf-cutting implement named a sleán. Thus, a peated expression was the perfect way to celebrate this heritage.
So O’Connell has some stock, but an indie bottler needs more than Cooley or Great Northern to offer the punters. O’Connell’s model is a surprisingly new enterprise – there are many, many Irish whiskey brands out there which are effectively just indie bottlings – sourced whiskey released under another label. However, many are either released under the name of an as-yet unbuilt, partially built, or operational but sub-three years old distillery, or are bottlers without telling you that this is what they are. There is a paucity of brands who plainly state they are indie bottlers, who offer full info on the liquid within the bottle, where it came from, who distilled it, and how old it is. But bottlers are meant to be curators – they provide a vital piece of infrastructure in Scotland, and will be required to do the same here.
WD O’Connell Whiskey Merchants comes with a clarity and simplicity in its message – that they are going to source stock from distilleries and bottle it in small batches. The Bill Phil is a light gold liquid, with a bright, medicinal tang on the nose – light but succulent sweetness. On the palate – the youthful heat is balanced by sweet smoke, and for a barely legal dram it is incredibly smooth. O’Connell is quick to point out that the Bill Phil isn’t some smash and grab, where he releases a well-aged 17 and then throws out some firewater as a money spinner. Bill Phil was released because it is quality liquid – and because it shows the power of peat, something O’Connell is keen to explore. The PX is a counterpoint to Bill Phil – mature, deep, heavy with red fruits and dark chocolate. Both were released in tiny batches and are stocked in specialist outlets – Fox, Mulligan’s, Bradley’s – as these are specialist offerings.
Right now, O’Connell is a one-man show, chasing the highways and byways to get his product and his brand out there. Next year he is considering a March release for another Bill Phil, followed by an 18-year-old version of the PX in June, complimented by a small batch cask-strength edition. He is assembling casks from Irish distilleries, especially the smaller start-ups. Beyond that, he is envisioning a central hub, akin to Gordon & MacPhail’s Elgin headquarters, which would operate as a home for the brand. Settled for the moment on Waterford’s Copper Coast, he is still looking for the right place for a brand home. It may well be a long road ahead for Daithí or any indie bottlers – Gordon & MacPhail were founded 123 years ago, Cademhead’s 148 years, but O’Connell is looking to build something that will outlive and outlast him.
Ever the navigator, one of the reasons O’Connell loves the indie bottling model is because of the sense of adventure – finding new distilleries to source stock from, new worlds to explore, and a new chapter in his whiskey journey.
In the autumn of 2012, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away, and with him went a little piece of Scottish culture. Hogg was the last native speaker of a Scots dialect spoken by the fisherfolk of the isolated Cromarty community, the only other native speaker having been his brother, Gordon, who had passed away a year previous. Fortunately, researcher Janine Donald of online cultural archive Am Baile recorded the two brothers chatting in the language and used the sessions to compile a dictionary of their phrases and fables. You can read the booklet here, while the site also has transcripts of recordings of the brothers speaking in the dialect. You can hear two of the Hogg family singing a traditional song here. The dialect is believed to have been handed down from Norse and Dutch fishermen who settled in the area in the 16th century, and while elements of the language remain in the everyday speech used in Cromarty, the passing of the Hogg brothers saw the end of the language being used in its natural, organic state. Here are a few samples:
Ah ken the cutyach ye belang taeI – I know where you’re from (derogatory)
At a grandeur! – What a show off!
At now kucka? – A friendly greeting
Blussing o tattas – A large amount of potatoes
Boors n boors – Lots and lots
E rose from his mate lik a potye – He got up from his meal like a pig
Ee’s a boshach-skeyter – Contemptuous expression for a miserable, mishapen creature
E’s as prood as Bubba – He’s as proud as the devil
Gaen clean tae the tootrach – Away with the fairies, or having become disreputable through drink
Holl toll – Very drunk
Whelp o’ darkness – An individual who was prone to anti-social behaviour
Part of the reason the dialect survived as long as it did is because of where the tiny village of Cromarty is located – perched on the northern tip of the Black Isle in the Highlands, with little of note about it apart from the dialect and the fact they owned Britain’s smallest vehicle ferry, the Cromarty Rose, which ran across the forth to Nigg.
However, the community isn’t quite as isolated as you would think, as the Black Isle isn’t actually an island. One of the peculiarities of Scots gaelic is that there is no differentiation between peninsula and island; perhaps they just got tired of keeping track of which is which – after all, they do have 790 actual islands and a coastline that looks like shattered glass. Perhaps they just felt that The Black Peninsula sounded less dramatic.
The Black Isle also happens to be home to Glen Ord, a Diageo distillery that makes malt for the Johnnie Walker and Singleton brands. Frankly, looking at a map you would struggle to say the distillery is actually on the Black Isle, given that it is at the absolute opposite end from Cromarty, but as it sits in the Muir Of Ord, it can thus can make the claim.
The older I get, the more I like the whiskey’s temporal dimension – beyond the core ingredients of barley, teast, and water, or even transformative elements like copper and wood, it is time that ultimately defines whiskey. Ingredients and vessels give it nature, but is time that nurtures it. It rolls of the stills as new make spirit, with a unique personality of its own, but it is nothing until you add three years in a cask. Add more years and its value increases. Time stops when you rip it from the cask and put it in a bottle, placed into cryosleep, only to finally fulfil its destiny once you pour it into a glass and consume it. I am at the upper limit for aged whiskey – 43 – I am finally starting to understand just how finite my time is. The end of the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect is a reminder that time devours everything, no matter how we fight it.
Cadenhead are the oldest independent bottler in Scotland. They have a lovely website where you can read their storied history, find out what they do, and ultimately not purchase anything, as they don’t do online shopping. Even when you go into their Edinburgh store, your purchases are worked out with a pen, paper and a calculator. If they could fit an abacus on the desk, they probably would. For a store that deals in capsules filled with time, they are adamant that they won’t march to its merciless beat.
I bought a ten-year-old Glen Ord, a Kilkerran 12, an unnamed Islay eight-year-old and a Teaninch. The Ord came on the recommendation of staff, who pushed it over another, older bottling from the same distillery. So what of this entry-level whiskey from the last distillery standing on the Black Isle: On the nose it is waxy, with green apple, a pleasing whiff of gasoline, pepper, but with sweetness, spun sugar, wine gums, brown sugar cubes. On the palate there is that waxy feel, with a little aniseed, and a fresh zesty element that sizzles on the tongue. It’s smooth, with the right depth for a whisky this age, but just lacks that little something odd that I was hoping for. The finish doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves traces of pear drops and marmalade. Overall a solid purchase, and a handy reminder that one day we will all be dead, but then I would say that as I am a whelp o’ darkness.
St Malachy’s Church in Belfast is a survivor. Built in 1841 in what Sir John Betjeman once described as ‘a cheerful gothic’ style, it had its windows blown in by a German bomb during the Second World War, whilst also having the remaining windows sucked out when another bomb hit the nearby gasworks, causing a massive vacuum. Some of the windows were then filled in with concrete, which ultimately damaged the surrounding brickwork, and eventually more than 80,000 handmade bricks had to be replaced. Apart from all those woes, the church also had to deal with some especially pedantic neighbours.
St Malachy’s is home to the largest and possibly loudest bell in Belfast – its din was so great that it started to bother the Dunville family, who owned the nearby Royal Irish Distillery. They claimed that the noise from the bell was disturbing the whiskey they had maturing in their warehouses, and managed to create enough of a headache for church bosses that they actually agreed to cover the bell in felt to help muffle the sound. Perhaps picking a fight with the church wasn’t the best idea for Dunvilles, as they went into voluntary liquidation in 1936, despite the fact that they were still in profit at the time. Many of the old Irish distilleries ended like this – brought down by a combination of bad timing, bad luck and the misfortune of having the canniest rivals they possibly could – the Scots. For almost a century, our Celtic neighbours have ruled the whisky world, and now we are in resurgence we have a lot of old scores to settle.
By now you will have heard that there is a whiskey boom here. All over the country distilleries are popping up, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in the world, and we are screaming back into the consciousness of drinkers like a rocket from the crypt. People are starting to talk about whiskey tourism, with industry body the Irish Whiskey Association even going so far as to say that they envision Ireland being a world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. This is, of course, wonderful; everyone likes good news, especially when it involves the Irish doing well. However, it may take a little longer than 12 years to beat the Scots at whisky tourism, and all we have to do to realise this is to look across the Straits of Moyle to our old distilling rivals.
Scotland has two major whisky festivals – Feis Ile on the island of Islay, the location where Irish monks made the terrible mistake of teaching the Scots how to distill, and the Spirit Of Speyside, held in the true whisky heartland above the Cairngorm mountain range. While Islay has fewer than ten distilleries, Speyside has more than 50, many of them household names – The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenfiddich being some of the best known. They are the brands that permeate the consciousness of the average consumer. They have been in existence for up to a century or more, and have made their way into popular culture via cinema, art, and music. During the Speyside festival these titans of whisky and dozens more throw open their doors to their adoring public, and thousands flock from all over the UK, the US and Europe to be there. This, in a nutshell, is whisky tourism – people going to a place purely for the whisky, a sacred pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their favourite drink. It takes generations for a whisky brand to build up this sort of fanbase, because whisky is all about time. It takes three years for spirit to age in a cask before it can legally be called whiskey, but it takes far longer to become an icon. A ten year old single malt is considered to be entry level, and you will need considerably older stock than that to lure in significant numbers of tourists.
So this is where we are lacking – our new distilleries are going to be waiting for a decade or more before their stock starts to really make an impact on the global whiskey scene. Combine this with the fact that, outside of Dublin, we really don’t have any clusters of distilleries like they do in Speyside or Islay, where fans can walk, cycle, or simply stagger from distillery to distillery. If whiskey tourism is to work in Ireland, it will need more than just distillery visits, and that’s where we can learn from the Speyside festival.
I’ve been to the festival twice, in 2015 and this year, and it is an excellent illustration of how whisky tourism should work. Distillery visits and the drink itself may be the bedrock, but the festival is more about Scottish culture than anything. There were nature walks, ceilidhs, formal dances, incredible food, and treks into the mountains on amphibian Argocats. I went to talks on geology, a water tasting session, a distillery tour where we munched on malted barley, and more fine food than I should have eaten. There was breathtaking scenery, beautiful architecture, wonderful people and memories that will last a lifetime. This wasn’t a booze cruise – it was about losing yourself in heritage, history and tradition (whilst drinking some of the world’s greatest single malts, obviously).
We may not have mature distilleries that hark back two centuries, but we have all the other elements ready to go. In fact, Alan Winchester, the legendary master distiller of The Glenlivet – the person who told me about Dunvilles versus the bell of St Malachy’s – was singing the praises of the startling beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way, a route that is now peppered with whiskey tourism attractions. Seeing what the Spirit Of Speyside has to offer is a lesson in how whisky tourism should be done – rather than claiming we are going to beat the Scots, we should be learning from them and working with them. If a tourist is coming from Canada to visit Scottish distilleries, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump to Ireland, where whisky fans can visit iconic distilleries like Bushmills and relative newcomers like the innovative Echlinville Distillery, who resurrected the old Dunville brands, rebuilding a link to our lost distilling heritage.
Irish whiskey’s return to the world stage will be as much about respect as it is about sales and economics – the great bell of St Malachy’s still rings three times a day, a reminder that when it comes to spirit matters – both liquid and divine – faith, devotion and a decent measure of humility are key to salvation.
Loving whiskey can be a bit lonely. It’s a bit like trainspotting – both involve a love of history and engineering, lots of note taking and bringing a camera everywhere. Granted, whiskey is a lot more fun, as you get to do all those things whilst half cut, but you get the idea – it can be a solitary affair. It can be hard to find others who share your boundless enthusiasm for what most people see as ‘just a drink’. This is where the internet comes in. In the absence of a local network of fellow enthusiasts, we have a digital fan club that spreads across the globe.
When I go online I can see thousands of people who are equally enamored with whiskey, sharing insights, reviews and photos – but we could always do with more, especially for Irish whiskey. More voices, more opinions, more reviews, more insights, more people holding industry to account. So cry havoc and let slip the blogs of war with this handy guide to destroying your life via blogging.
Writing – When I worked as a subeditor we used to have a Leaving Cert (Irish GCSE) diarist who would write daily columns about the exams. Some of the columnists were great – but some were what we would call ‘Englishmakers’. The kids were so used to writing to impress an English teacher that they would be doing linguistic acrobatics. Perhaps in some parallel universe their work would be seen as good, but we thought they were shit, and spent a lot of time unpicking the elaborate tapestry they had woven. So the best tip I could give anyone on writing is via Yoda – there is no try, only do. Don’t try to write, just sit down the hammer the keys. Don’t worry about crafting a masterpiece or you will take a lot of the fun out of writing and a lot of fun out of the writing itself. Just give it a lash. As long as what you say comes from the heart, everything else will work just fine. And, obviously enough, never, ever plagiarise. In the past I have plagiarised, which is why I feel completely comfortable telling you that only cunts do it. Write every word you can, give attributions where necessary, and shoot straight.
Platforms – I started blogging on MySpace, the clunky mess where I more or less ended my career, then moved on to Tumblr, which I soon realised was a hipster wasteland, and then finally came to WordPress. It’s user-friendly, but it has awful storage. To get unlimited storage you need to buy premium – a princely 300 per year – which I have and get almost no use out of apart from being able to store all the rubbish posts I imported from my Tumblr when I started here. If I could go back I would host images elsewhere, like Flickr, which is free, and then embed them here. But for the vast majority of folks not uploading massive image files, either Blogger or WordPress are perfect, with lots of nice templates to make you look like a pro…or at least semi-pro.
Images – Speaking of looking like a pro, a half decent camera is a good thing to have. I have a Nikon D3200, which retails for about 400 euro. It takes lovely photos, is sturdy and not so freakishly expensive that you would be scared to bring it anywhere. Mine is always with me and has been bashed off several stills over the years, along with almost falling into several mashtuns. Nice photos can make all the difference to distillery trips and can catch details that you might miss otherwise. To make the photos look better I use Google Nik, a free software package. It has very simple editing software, but also has loads of cool templates which means you can edit your own photos easily, or you can also work on product shots you get from PR firms to make your use of them stand out from the crowd. Humans are visual creatures – a nice layout with strong visual content is always a good thing, even if it’s just millions of photos of bottles, or pictures of you clutching John Teeling or Charlie MacLean.
Features – There is always something to write about with whiskey – especially with Irish whiskey. There are all these new distilleries just waiting to tell their stories. Wherever you live in Ireland, there is going to be one within driving distance. Ring them up, ask them if you can pop round, and get your geek on. One handy piece of advice is to download a dictaphone app to your phone and record the visit. This is also a good tip for when you attend tastings with reps. You don’t want to be scribbling details in your notebook when you can relax and enjoy, and then go back over what was said later to check any details you might be hazy about. Use your own internal barometer on what to include in any coverage and what to leave out. Obviously, I never follow this advice, as I write massively overblown long-form pieces, but it keeps me busy and thus out of trouble. Or does it?
Trouble – If you don’t like a whiskey, you say it. It doesn’t matter if you got sent the bottle for free and you fell you should really say nice things about it, don’t. If it’s not good enough, then why should anyone else go out and buy it, simply because you didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the creators? They aren’t going to learn that way. Everything is, of course, relative to price, and is worth bearing in mind with every review, no matter how you got your hands on the sample. Give credit where it’s due, and don’t be negative just for the sake of it. Everyone has their favourite brands or distilleries, but try to be objective and give everyone a fair crack of the whip.
Evidence versus opinion – If you are going to take on a brand over claims they make, you need to make sure you have cold, hard facts. Gather evidence – screenshots, PDFs, newspaper interviews. You need to be able to stand over what you say. This is the internet – assume everyone in the world is going to read what you write. Be nice to brands when they deserve it, be critical when it is needed, and be clinical when you need to take someone down. Offering your thoughts on the liquid is fine – it’s not defamatory to say a whiskey is shit, that’s honest opinion – but all the other cultural stuff about sourcing, marketing etc really needs to be backed up in fact, otherwise you could end up defaming someone.
Defamation – To defame someone is to lower their opinion in the eyes of right minded people. One classic example of this from the whisky world is the annual shit tornado that comes when Jim Murray releases his best-of list. People line up all over the internet to make accusations about how he comes to make the choices he does, yet no-one seems to be able to produce evidence to back up the slurs. Frankly, I’m amazed no-one has been sued over it – perhaps he doesn’t care, or perhaps he doesn’t need the hassle. But it’s worth noting that if you make an accusation against someone, they are not legally required to prove you wrong, you are legally required to prove yourself right. Unless you can back up what you said with evidence, you are fucked. Of course, there are always going to people who claim they have been defamed simply because they don’t like what you say, or because their feelings are hurt. So know what the law states, and remember that this is the internet, you need to get used to the rough and tumble of online discourse. Defamation is a very, very expensive process, both to prove, or to have proved against you. If an incorrect or inaccurate statement has been made, usually a correction or clarification is issued and that puts the matter to bed. Never be afraid to say you are sorry. Unless you weren’t wrong, then just tell them to go fuck themselves.
Don’t be a mouthpiece – Approach brands for samples, bottles, photos, press releases, their first born – there is no shame in asking for free stuff. When I worked in the paper there were senior reporters who used to blag free holidays for themselves, or free concert tickets, or free anything. Newsrooms are awash in freebies, to the point that we used to be turning down free holidays. Take a freebie as long as it doesn’t compromise you. If you’re in the blogging game to gain favour with distilleries, that’s fine, but your blog will be shit. Nobody wants to visit your site to read a nonsensical press release. If you don’t have time to rewrite what they sent you just use the salient points and cut out the colour – give the data, but try to do your own tasting notes. Your tasting notes are unique to you, your memories, your culture, your life. I love tasting notes as they are objectively meaningless, but are a brilliant way to profile people, as one might do with a serial killer: ‘This is the Zodiac speaking, and I am detecting notes of heather honey’.
Shamelessly whore yourself out – You need to help people find your blog. I use Twitter, so when I tweet a link to a blog post, most of the traffic comes from there. Most people use Facebook, which works more or less the same. On a related note, never buy followers. It is deeply transparent and truly desperate. Make sure you use relevant tags in your blog posts. WordPress and most other blog platforms have time settings so you can write a load of posts and then set them to be published at a rate of one a week. I write all my pieces in Google Docs, which is available everywhere (obviously), and then I rework them and copy them onto WordPress and quickly throw the layout together. It is all pretty simple – I’m really quite the Luddite, so if I can do it, pretty much anyone can. Or, you can get your kids to who you how to do it. It is also worth getting business cards – Vistaprint are cheap and cheerful and have loads of options, Moo have nicer ones that cost more but look far superior. Make sure before you buy that you are happy with your blog title, domain name, email address and so on as once the cards are printed you will be held to them. Also, be reasonable – I got 700 cards printed up in 2015, and think I gave away about 40, max. Even though they are handy, they are also quite cheesy and a little bit Eighties. Like, who couldn’t find you using Google?
Work at it – I’ve always loved the internet, as I was the kid in class who couldn’t shut up. Twitter and WordPress are just extensions of that. But blogging still takes effort. You won’t really know how much you like it until you try, but it is, at the very least, worth a shot – all the freelance work I get these days comes from a blog post I wrote about whiskey back in 2016; for some young blades their blogs became a way into the industry as ambassadors, but for most of us it is a hobby that gives us a way to share our thoughts and our passion with other fans. With that in mind, here are a few of the Irish whiskey blogs that I read and enjoy:
Liquid Irish – the first whiskey blog I ever read and still my high benchmark for food and drink blogging. I still use David’s site as a resource for information not available elsewhere about the nitty gritty of Irish whiskey. He is Obi Wan Kenobi to my Jar Jar Binks.
Westmeath Whiskey World – Short, snappy pieces about Irish and Scotch, thinkpieces about the future of Irish whiskey, and a really unique voice. Really like this one.
That’s Dram Good – From entry level to high end, Omar knows his whiskeys. Excellent taste and although just started, Omar has been writing and posting at a wicked speed.
Dave’s Irish Whiskey – Another passionate fan starting a blog, one of Dave’s first posts is about how he drove 500km for a bottle of whiskey. Hoping this blog will be the On The Road of Irish whiskey blogs.
Whiskey or Whisky? – Liberties-based Marc asks the eternal question – how should we spell the word anyway? A welcome focus on the new/old distilling hotspot, the Liberties.
WhiskeyJAC – Jamie is NI-based, and is putting out the posts at a solid rate; coverage of events, pieces on other spirits, and no aversion to a dram of Scotch.
Bourbon Paddy – A blog about bourbon from Ireland. What’s not to love? Some amazing bourbons out there, and this is a good place to learn more about them.
Causeway Coast – Phil writes for the excellent Malt but his own NI-based blog is packed with excellent news, reviews and features.
Pot Stilled – Matt Healy moved on to become Tullamore DEW’s man on the ground in Philly (fly Eagles fly!), so his blog is a little quieter these days, but still has excellent critical mythbusting pieces on whiskey.
Whisky Belfast – Stuart’s blog gets quite deep into the detail, like an episode of The Wire. A real nerd’s blog, which in whiskey terms is actually quite the compliment.
Chapel Gate blog – A voice from inside the industry, but one that shoots straight. Louise McGuane has insights into how the industry works that bloggers never will.
Waterford Distillery blog – Mark Reynier is a masterful communicator. You may not agree with him, but you can still enjoy the message.
Blackwater Distillery blog – Peter Mulryan, like Reynier and McGuane, makes the industry more interesting by going full Jerry Maguire on it. Big things ahead for their distillery, share the journey with the blog.
I’ll update this list as I find new ones, but this is a good start. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of all Irish whiskey blogs, but these are the ones I enjoy. It’s heartening to see so many newcomers, as this is all about diversity and discourse. There is no single voice of Irish whiskey – it’s up to all of us to help guide people through the category, and share the passion and knowledge we have of the subject with the world. And sher, if you get some free booze out of it, how bad.
Not far from where I live is a little village named Ardmore. Just over the county line (and the River Blackwater), it is a pretty little spot, once dependant on fishing but now surviving well on reeling in the tourists instead. It’s home to the Cliff House Hotel, which has one of the better whiskey bars in the region, and it is also a popular spot for dives, with numerous wrecks just off the coast, including the HMS Scotland, which sank in 1875.
Scotland – the country, not the wreck – has its own Ardmore, one that is arguably more famous than the one in Waterford or any of the Ardmores scattered across the island of Ireland. Ardmore Distillery in Aberdeenshire was founded by the Teacher family to create malt for their blend, and it remains a primary component of Teacher’s. Their own bottlings include some TR NAS releases, and a recent 20-year-old that received a positive review on Malt, which pointed out that the 75 euro price tag made the release an excellent bang-for-your-buck whisky. By the time I clicked on to Master Of Malt to buy one, it had jumped up to 120 (as of now, it is back down to 75). So I had a rummage and found a Douglas Laing-bottled 21 year old from the same distillery for an equally reasonable 88 euro and bought that.
Ardmore means the same thing in Scots and Irish gaelic – great height. The links between our languages are a reminder of how much our countries have in common, culturally and historically. Obviously, when it comes to our beloved spirit drink, there are a couple of differences.
The much-touted renaissance of Irish whiskey has seen us rocket to an impressive 100 million bottles sold in 2016. For an industry that was in ribbons in the 1980s, this is like Lazarus rising and then winning a series of ultramarathons. However, we need perspective: In the first six months of 2017, Scotland exported 528 million bottles of Scotch, more than five times what we sold in all of the previous year. Yet Scotland’s staggering figure is a fall of 2.2% from the previous year. They are the whisky rulers of the planet, whether we like to admit it or not. So the question is, do we work to stand apart from them, or do we align?
When I spoke to Elliot Hughes and Peter Mosley from Dingle Distillery last summer, the subject of Irish food promotion came up. They talked about focus groups where brands were encouraged to separate themselves from the big success stories, and talk up how they were better than the best. The Dingle guys couldn’t see the sense of this, pointing out how ludicrous it was to be trying to lure consumers away from the big brands by claiming you are better on the basis of elements as random as the ‘air and water’ where your product is made.
Elliot made the point that you should let the big brands do the heavy lifting, then pitch yourself as similar, but separate. Think of it as – you’ve tried Guinness, Wrasslers is like that, why not give it a go? You don’t alienate consumers by telling them you are better than what they are drinking, you just say – have a sip of this and see what you think. I feel the same about whiskey. The Scots have inroads to markets, but more importantly they have inroads to hearts and minds. Theirs is a magical aura – of class, sophistication, quality. They also have an array of whiskies and distilleries that we could spend a century catching up to. So why not ride their coattails, rather than trying to row back decades of cultural osmosis? Why not say ‘Scotch whisky is a wonder, but Irish is too – and we aren’t all that different’? In short, why not just go ahead and drop the E?
In almost every Whiskey 101/Introduction to Whiskey article you read in the mainstream press, one of the most tedious and boring points is about how Irish whiskey is spelled with an E and Scottish whisky is not. It rarely goes into the subject deeper than that, mainly because the explanation is not very exciting – Dublin distillers wanted the world to know that their great whiskey was much better than that made by country distillers, so they shoved an E into the world to mark out how different they were. Or, Irish distillers wanted to differentiate themselves from Scottish blends, so they shoved in an E. Whoever started it, it all went a bit like Dr Seuss’s Sneetches On Beaches, where star belly sneetches get their stars put on and taken off as the unstarred ones do the same to fit in. So we were left with Irish whiskey, another construct of the Sylvester McMonkey McBean School of Marketing, where different and better are interchangeable terms.
I’m not saying that I want it taken off any of the brands already in existence, but for me, if I was a new distillery or indie bottler looking to make inroads into kingmaker markets like the US, or Asia, then I would have no problem with selling my brand as a boutique single malt Irish whisky. I wouldn’t stick a load of tartan on the label, or bagpipes, or anything to make it less Irish, but I would not bother with the E. Curiously, I would be fully entitled to do it.
In October 2014 the Irish Whiskey Technical File was published. It lays the groundwork for what will become the rules guiding Irish whiskey. There is an excellent study of it by David Havelin of LiquidIrish (and an excellent correspondence with Bushmills on use of ‘whiskies’ in one of their campaigns), but right in the title of the technical file one thing stands out – a dual spelling. It can be Irish whisky or Irish whiskey. So there it was, right on the front page. It was only a matter of time until someone chose to drop the E, but it seems fitting that whiskey-historian-turned-whiskey-distiller Peter Mulryan was the first. It also seems fitting that Déise-based terroirist Mark Reynier was the second. That both are distilling in Waterford is just coincidence, but in a few years time, Waterford whisky is going to be a thing. Both are outspoken mavericks, so it makes sense that they would grab the chance to be different, although this quote from Reynier resonates with me: “I loathe whisk(e)y. That PC catch-all spelling beloved of publishers and bloggers the world over – neither wishing to offend, nor prepared to make a decision, they use the tentative bracket to give us the worst of both worlds, like a unisex lavatory.”
We’ve just updated our twitter handle – so if you’re in dialogue with our old one, we’re not ignoring you…
There is an argument that the E is central to the identity of Irish whiskey. Marketing, it seems, is the key. The idea is that dropping the E would confuse consumers; that we are better standing apart from Scotland, and that the E does that. My point would be – do we want to stand apart? Do we not want to be seen in a similar light across the pond? The bigger question is one of category awareness, but also geographical and historical – how many consumers in the States see Ireland and Scotland and completely separate entities? Look at the Paddy’s Day photos from the States – bagpipes, kilts, tartan. Granted the Boston Irish might know what’s what, but do the vast bulk of consumers that we want to target know – or even care – that we are separate countries? Do we want to be the guys correcting them and saying ‘well actually that is completely separate from us’?
Beyond that, ask them what a single malt is, and they will probably tell you ‘Scotch’. Scotch whisky is embedded as the single malt in the hearts and minds of whisky drinkers over there, so shape-shifting a little and using that as an access point seems, to me, like a good idea. Do we want to stand so far apart from the gold standard for potable spirits? And does this one little letter really achieve that aim? I would like to see the category move beyond an ‘us versus them’ mindset to a ‘us and them’ one. I made this point a couple of years ago, saying maybe it is time to move beyond nation and see the Scots as our celtic family, as Canadian and Japanese whisky starts to take over. While I love the ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ mindset, I certainly don’t want to see us setting ourselves up for a fall – and over-the-top sound bites aren’t going to help us be taken seriously on the world stage, especially in regards to whiskey tourism.
Joe Brandie had an ironic name, given his status as a whisky legend. As owner of The Fiddichside Inn in Speyside, Scotland’s distilling heartland, Brandie – who passed away late last year – became a well-known face among whisky tourists in the region, who would pop into his pub in between distillery trips. The Fiddichside was part of a disappearing world – there was no music, no TV, and no food. There was a big, open fire, a good whisky selection, and a warm welcome from Brandie, ever present behind the counter, unless there was a funeral nearby and he had to shut up shop for an hour.
Brandie’s passing is a reminder of the rich whisky heritage in Scotland – a heritage that dwarfs our own. Obviously, things are picking up here, but for the Irish Whiskey Association to declare that we will be the world’s number one whiskey tourist draw by 2025 is somewhat ambitious. Whiskey tourism is a very specific thing – it isn’t someone on holidays here visiting a distillery, it is someone coming here to visit a distillery. Whiskey tourists are going to be vital for remote rural distilleries, of which there are now many here, but in order for that to happen, those distilleries need to build up a following. They do this by bringing their own product to market, and for it to be a hit, even in cult terms. Then the fans will want to come visit the distillery, see the warehouses, picking up the distillery-only bottlings and spend time in the area before moving on to another distillery. While whisky tourism in Scotland only really took off in the 1990s, the distilleries involved had decades if not centuries of unbroken history – and decades old stock.
A busload of Americans at a loose end in Dublin doing the Jameson tour, or the Teeling one, or the Pearse Lyons one, is not whiskey tourism. A group of whiskey geeks coming here, hiring a car and travelling around Ireland, visiting every distillery they can find along the way – that is whiskey tourism.
Consider the above. Clonakilty in west Cork is a great town with massive tourism offerings – year-round festivals, and an abundance of attractions nearby. But for an unbuilt distillery to claim it will draw more than forty thousand people per annum to the town is at best ambitious. It’s not a claim that they will have 40,000 visitors – it is that they will bring that number of visitors to the town.
To give it some context: Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye has 50,000 visitors per year. Talisker has been in existence for two centuries, and has its entry level ten year old single malt on every shelf in every Tesco store in Ireland. It is an iconic Scotch, which goes a long way towards explaining why Talisker welcomes almost a thousand tourists a week. I asked Michael Scully, the man behind Clonakilty Distillery, where he got his figures from. He said the numbers are projected to five to ten years after the distillery is built, and are based on what he claimed was a similar attraction, the Clonakilty Model Railway, which has 40,000 visitors per year.
I’ve been to the model railway, and it is great fun for all the family. I bought my wife and kids there, and the venue is also used to host kids parties. It’s a nice day out. If I suggested to my wife that we load the kids into the car and go visit a distillery, she would rightly tell me to fuck off. A distillery may draw people with an interest in food and drink, in chemistry, in history, but you are not going to convince kids that a distillery is a place worth visiting. Trust me, I’ve tried. So if you consider who in your family would like to visit a distillery, and who would like to visit a cool little railway town that makes kids feel like giants, then work out how many of the 40,000 would actually go to Clon to visit a distillery. I reckon it’d be generous to say between 15,000 and 20,000 is a more reasonable number.
You can say, well the 40,000 figure is hypothetical, but it was being used as leverage as the distillery sought planning and funding. If Clon distillery draws 40,000 visitors per annum in twenty years, I will be impressed. But for now we need to keep our feet on the ground and accept that our Irish charm and wit isn’t going to hand us success on a plate. Where is our Talisker? Our Macallan? Our Ardbeg? You don’t become a whiskey legend overnight, and this isn’t the Field Of Dreams – you build it, you make a great product, and if you’re lucky, they will come at some point in the distant future.
Similarly, we don’t have a Feis Ile, a Spirit Of Speyside, or any festival where we can celebrate a rich heritage of classic distilleries. We have so much to offer any tourist here, but large numbers of mature distilleries is not one of them. In a few years Dublin will have many distilleries you can visit – but Dublin doesn’t need tourists; places like Waterford, Clare, west Cork, Connaught, Donegal need them – to rural outposts, tourism is a lifeline and the difference between failure and success. I am as optimistic as the next person, but we need to talk in real stats, real plans, real distilleries, and real whiskey tourism.
Irish whiskey distilleries attracted 814,000 visitors in 2017, an 11% increase on 2016! – “Continued double-digit growth proves that Irish whiskey tourism is a hot trend right now and an increasingly important part of Ireland’s tourism offer" @LavelleAbfihttps://t.co/QC0sDvsVVP
I'd never claim the math ability of Euclid but if the number of distilleries increases by 20% (10 to 12), while visitor numbers only increase 11%, doesn't that indicate a fall in average distillery visitors, 73300 for 10 down to 67833 for 12 (-7.5%)? https://t.co/LyUPouxYNmpic.twitter.com/8h911tMyRj
Scotch has beaten us repeatedly over the last 100 years, and will continue to do so for some time, both in sales, in tourism, and – crucially – in reputation. If we are going to earn the respect of the spirit world, we will need to be realistic in our approach, and walk the walk before we talk the talk. Joe Brandie could have told us how much hard work it takes to become an icon – in the 57 years he ran the Fiddichside Inn, he only ever took four days off, and that was to mourn the passing of his wife. Brandie’s passing is a lesson in the difference between being a legend and being a myth – everything is about time, hard work and patience, and a lot less about how you spell the word whiskey. That said, if you’re thinking about starting a distillery in Ardmore in County Waterford, you might want to keep that E right where it is.
“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 almost drowned when I was eight. It was at Inchydoney beach, near where my dad is from; I was in the water, close to the shore. I took a step back and fell into a channel and disappeared under the water. I can still remember it – the blue haze of the water down there, the burning as seawater filled my throat and lungs, the silence. After a minute my mum dragged me out. The next year the exact same thing happened in the exact same spot. After that we swam on the main beach, away from the channels.
Trips to my mum’s family home were less eventful. I can remember my grandmother sending me out to the shed at the back to load up a steel bucket with turf for the range as she made massive pots of marmalade. Those two memories always come back to me when I taste Laphroaig Quarter Cask – burning seawater, citrus, sugar and peat smoke. Known colloquially as the medicinal malt, one of the best comparisons proffered on the Islay icon is that it ‘tastes like a burning hospital’. As someone who works in a hospital that has yet to go on fire, I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny – but I do know of one part of the building that always reminds me of Laphroaig. There is a day-unit where cancer patients attend to get their infusion of chemotherapy. It is, like much of the hospital, a place of joy and hope, sickness and sadness. Within the unit, there is a storeroom for medicines, records, medical equipment: Whatever the combination of items in there, it smells like Laphroaig QC. I always feel guilty for thinking this when I’m in there – this is a place where people come to desperately try to continue their lives, and picking up a whisky note is glib, if not ghoulish. But it is what it is – I can’t consciously control my memory, if I could I would probably erase much of the Nineties. So being reminded of drowning, peat fires or the smell of chemotherapy is not something I can summon or dismiss.
Working in a hospital, even shuffling paperwork, isn’t an easy job. You see a lot of amazing things, but you also see a lot of loss. I can feel it since I lost my dad. I’m working in the outpatients department, around the corner from the radiotherapy department where he was treated. Sometimes I walk through there and it just pops back into my head – he is gone. During the week I was walking through one of the wards on the fifth floor, chasing down a chart for a clinic. I got a sudden hit of deja vu and stopped in my tracks, realising I was in the ward dad was in when he was first diagnosed. In the four beds in the ward were another four elderly men, possibly facing the same fate as him. And this is it – an endless rolling mill of short lives on an old planet. During the week I met the cancer nurse who cared for my dad (and my mum). She told me it was early days, that every first will bring it all back. Last week was the first Halloween. I remember when I was a kid at Halloween, my dad cutting a slice of barmbrack and I spotted the ring in it, so he gave the slice to me. For such devout Catholics, my parents always embraced the pagan feasts with enthusiasm. It’s not hard to see why our forefathers celebrated Samhain. The end of the harvest, and the start of a winter that may or may not kill you – why not have a bit of craic before you go into hibernation? Just like Christmas – the midpoint in the bleakest time of the year – it is a functional celebration, rooted in nature.
The photo above (by DMoon1) is of the Mound Of The Hostages in Meath. Similar in layout to Newgrange, it is a neolithic tomb that contains between 200 and 500 bodies. Two days of the year the light of the sun illuminates the central corridor – Samhain, what we now know as Halloween, and Imbolc, the day in February marking the end of winter (which the Christians rebranded as St Brigid’s Day). Samhain is the day when the walls between worlds are at their weakest, allowing the dead to walk the earth. Tombs like the Mound Of The Hostages were seen as portals to the other side. Throughout history we have always wanted to believe there is somewhere else. We call the dead ‘the departed’, and talk of them being gone, as though they have left on a journey, or crossed over to another plane. I’d love to think that was the case, but to me there is nothing else, only this. We live and die, and some stuff, good and bad, happens in between. Even my dad, who came from a generation where faith was bred into them, couldn’t talk about another world at the end. He occasionally mentioned how his faith was helping him, but I could see he didn’t fully believe that he was heading on some journey. He knew there was nothing else, no great reunion in the sky for him, my mum and my sister. There was only goodbye to all this.
I can feel the grief gnawing away at me, but I know that with time it will ease off. One of the hardest aspects of it is the message that comes with losing someone – someday I will be over too. And not just that, so too will everyone I know and love. My wife will die, my kids will die, their kids will die. We stop, and they put us in the ground, and that is it. I try to look on the bright side – I am probably only 50% of my way through my time. My lifespan is either half empty or half full, depending on how glum I feel.
What I love about Laphroaig is how it polarises people, lays bare our personal tastes and bias. You will see a review that will say ‘this is disgusting, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. Another review will say ‘this is amazing, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. We are all different, but deep down we are essentially the same. Yesterday I met a man who had just lost his wife. I didn’t know this until I asked if his next of kin was the person listed, and he started to cry. I apologised, on the verge of tears myself. We choked it down, and moved on. I came home and hammered down several generous measures of Laphroaig and contemplated the dumb luck of working in the hospital that treated my mum, dad and sister before they died, and smells like a whisky I particularly like. I’m glad I didn’t drown in Inchydoney. It would have been a pretty shit turn of events for me. I would have missed a lot of stuff – good and bad – and I never would have learned to enjoy something that tastes like band aids and peroxide.
Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.
ALDOUS HUXLEY, Do What You Will
When Kurt Ballou was in his early teens, his parents brought him across America in a camper van for the summer holidays. With no siblings to keep him company, music became his friend. He sat in the back of the van with his headphones on, listening to his favourite bands over and over, picking apart the sounds and how they worked – as music, and on him as a listener. He played saxophone in the school band but soon moved on to other instruments, and travelled down this path until he and his friends formed a band named Converge in the 1990s. Their early albums showed promise, but it was with 2001’s Jane Doe that they really hit their stride – one that has shown no signs of slowing, 15 years and five albums later. They have been consistently excellent for the past decade and a half, with each album hitting a remarkably high standard, despite the fact that the music they make sounds like someone driving a schoolbus off a cliff. Converge play a blitzkrieg fusion of punk, grindcore, metal and D-beat, and the cacophony of their output should theoretically be a wall of white noise permeated by occasional screams. Thankfully, that summer of forensically dissecting music has worked wonders for Ballou, as he has produced their best albums (a fact he disputes, claiming he is an engineer, not the more showbiz role of producer).
There are numerous YouTube videos of Ballou talking about how he controls the hydra-headed beast that is Converge’s sound, breaking the components down, refining, stripping, and reconnecting them as one perfectly clean aural assault. But while Converge have maintained their incredible consistency, but have never let it stop them from evolving.
Their ability to change comes from an absence of record label pressure. Big businesses don’t like change, because consumers don’t like change. As a species we tend to romanticise the knowns of the past, and fear the unknown future. We prefer the reassurances of the familiar, the road more travelled, as we march along it under the banner of ‘consistency’. It is pandering to this mindset that has lead to an artificial colourant known as E150a being added to most whiskeys in the world. Apparently the public wants all of their bottles to look the same colour, in the same way we don’t want bendy carrots or any other evidence of the wonderful chaotic individuality of nature. Look at non-chill filtering – effectively a dystopian purging of natural oils to spare the blushes of drinkers in cold climates who might not like a slight clouding of their whiskey in temperatures. That, combined with the addition of caramel, is effectively whiskey fascism – a demand that everything look the same. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s character points out in Jurassic Park, you cannot impose order on nature; chaos theory tells us that while the present dictates the future, there is still absolutely no way of predicting it. Whiskeys change – talk to anyone who drank a certain dram 20 years ago and they will tell you exactly what has happened in the intervening decades.
Change is inevitable in life, just as it is in the whiskey industry – consider all the variables; soil, climate, grain, yeast, spirit, cask, and all of the potentially ever-changing cast of human beings involved in the whole process – so maybe they should embrace it. This is one of the reasons I love the Aberlour A’Bunadh. Released in batches, it celebrates change. Like Converge, it has a controlled ferocity – there is that white noise, white heat of a cask-strength beast, but those years in the sherry butt has tamed any feral overtones; it is a beautiful, creamy malt, rich and sweet but with that white pepper kick on the finish. Bottled at around the 60% mark and aged between five and 25 years (more youth than age, though it isn’t too apparent), a drink of an A’Bunadh is like being grasped around the throat by a mechanised fist in a velvet glove. Even the bottle looks like it was designed for war; short and squat like an artillery shell, with a wide, roaring mouth.
A Boer War artillery shell.
There is, of course, a completely ridiculous back story to go with the A’bunadh, one that is told on the distillery tours; it involves time capsules, drunk workmen and a newspaper from 1898. It brings nothing to the drink itself, which has more than enough qualities to stand apart from any marketing narrative. However, if you do happen to visit Aberlour Distillery, in one of the main halls of the visitors centre is a large camera obscura photo of two hands holding a bottle of A’bunadh – the photo having been taken by Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons.
It was in this room that I first tasted this whisky, at an event hosted by Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison. They were pairing whisky with the music of Bowie and Cash, drawing parallels between the two, beneath this ethereal photo of a whisky, taken by a musician.
While I loved the Aberlour whiskies, the music was not to my taste, because I like life a little bit louder. I always thought I would grow out of metal, a genre that is generally perceived to be pretty immature. However, I also never thought I’d grow into whiskey. For me they are two sides of the same coin – a desire to crank the senses up to 11. Most people recoil when they hear Converge, just as they recoil when taking that first sip of whiskey – the intensity of both is something to be reckoned with. But Kurt Ballou and Aberlour Distillery have the ability to take disparate, intense elements – high strength/loud noise, big flavours/massive riffs – and blend them to create a constantly evolving product without sacrificing standards. Because the only consistency we should seek is that of quality.
A bottle of Batch 55 A’bunadh is an exceptionally good value €55 on MasterOfMalt – and you can watch Ballou talking about the creation of Jane Doehere. And, if you want to challenge your hearing (and definition of what constitutes music), this is what Converge sound like:
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.
You just can’t go wrong with Powers. It is my drink of choice on the rare occasion that I actually get out for the night. It’s easily found in most pubs, is reasonably priced, and – to my palate – packs a bigger punch than it’s more popular sibling, Jameson. I always think of Indian food when I see how the average consumer views whiskey – most people think Indian food is basically varying degrees of ‘curry’. Similarly, many people think all whiskey is basically just Jameson, with minor variations. It’s only once you start to explore either that you realise a whole world, previously hidden to you, was there all along.
Jameson, like many blends, is the tikka masala or korma of the whiskey world – the most common introduction to the field, by virtue of its mellow smoothness and accessibility. Powers is probably the dopiaza of the field – with more pot still whiskey, it carries a little more spice and an extra dimension than the world’s most popular Irish whiskey. Powers is a great next step into the whiskey world, but while I love it’s oldschool styling, the younglings might be put off by something that exhibits some of the visual keys of a tube of Euthymol. So pappa’s got a brand new bag:
Not just a slick new label, but some lovely glasswork, as befitting the elder statesperson of Irish distilling.
Here are the official details:
An Irish Icon Awakes
Introducing the new look Powers Gold Label and Powers Three Swallow Release
With over 200 years of heritage distilled into each bottle, the new look Powers Gold Label is as definitive now as it always was – a pot still style whiskey of superior quality and undisputed heritage since 1791.
While the aesthetic has changed, everything that makes Powers Gold Label the quintessential Irish whiskey has stayed exactly the same. True to the Pot Still style of the original distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin, Powers Gold Label is still triple distilled and matured in specially selected oak casks bursting with the same wonderfully complex and spicy flavor.
Powers reputation for excellence and innovation placed them at the forefront of Irish whiskey. In 1866, John Power and Son began bottling their own whiskey, which was unheard of before in Ireland, as it was usually sold by the cask. A gold label was entrusted on the bottle to signify premium quality and guarantee it had come directly from the John’s Lane Distillery, earning its name Powers Gold Label by loyal customers
The new look Powers Gold Label bottle will be officially unveiled at an exclusive event in Dublin in a specially created pop-up bar on Mercer Street, Dublin 2 on October 6th. The event will also give guests an exclusive preview and tasting of a brand new Powers Single Pot Still Whiskey expression, Powers Three Swallow Release ahead of its official launch later in the year.
As it enters the next phase in its iconic 224 year history, Powers Three Swallow Release, distilled and aged to perfection, is the 21st century embodiment of the traditional pure pot still whiskey style that has made Powers famous the world over.
Powers Gold Label is available in all leading on and off trade outlets, RRP €29.49
The new look carries a lot of the feel of the (incredible) John’s Lane Release:
POWERS Gold Label 700ml
John’s Lane Release
It’s interesting to see Irish Distillers doing things like this – there are going to be a lot of competitors in the market over the next decade, so they are really donning the warpaint. Modernising a classic is a brave move, but shows they are confident that they will reach new consumers rather than alienating an older generation who may not initially recognise their beloved brand of yore. It also builds a strong visual link between the various members of the Powers family – be it entry-point blend, or luxuriant single pot still.
Speaking of old people: I recently got some wonderful agitprop in the post:
Yes, I should have dusted the bottle before I took the photos, but you get the idea – a rock-solid Irish classic has got a well-deserved makeover. Also, this confirms that I am officially in the pocket of Big Whiskey and cannot be trusted. Vote IDL! Impeach Cooley! Etc!
There are things that I miss about being in a newsroom. The flow of insider information, the unprintable story behind the story, the kernels of truth you occasionally stumble across. It is like an addiction – once gone from it, you feel the withdrawal, you realise that you are now on the outside. But that isn’t necessarily the worst place to be, and definitely not in today’s media, where low sales are driving a race to the bottom, with everyone now chasing MailOnline and Buzzfeed’s business models of listicles, flesh, rage-bait and endless repetition.
However, one of the best aspects of journalism is the access it gives you; it places you in a position of extreme privilege – you get into places you shouldn’t, get offered things you don’t need, and generally can live a larger life than your wages would suggest. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. Two years ago I was sent to an event in my hometown distillery called The Housewarming. It was being held to celebrate the massive expansion of the local distillery, but beyond that I didn’t know much else. I’m not sure what I expected, but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of it. Walking through the arch into the main courtyard behind the old distillery was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly blooms into Technicolor, or the first time Aldous Huxley dropped acid; I was, like Adam, seeing all of creation for the first time. After The Housewarming, I was hooked, and have been writing about – and loving – whiskey ever since. And so it was that I was one of only a few journalists to be invited to both the launch of the new micro distillery and celebration of Jameson’s rocketing sales – five million cases plus in 12 months.
The events in the distillery are pretty special – almost everything they do is delivered in epic widescreen, and this was no different. The first part of the evening was the launch of the microdsitillery, which has seen distilling return to the old distillery site for the first time in 40 years. In fact, this year marked a triple celebration for IDL – parent firm Pernod Ricard turned 40, the new Midleton distillery turned 40, and Master Distiller Brian Nation also hit the big four-O (I also turned 40 in August, but since I was on the dole, celebrations were muted).
Over the past couple of years, an old storehouse was renovated and turned into a small scale distillery – but one which was still larger than many of the new independent distilleries being set up around the country in the past 24 months.
After a drinks reception in the courtyard, we were ushered in to hear IDL CEO Anna Malmhake, Tánaiste Joan Burton and ‘micro-distiller’ (note: not an actual term) Karen Cotter speak about the new venture. Anna acted as MC, and Karen spoke first, giving a speech about her path to this point, about the distillery, her mentors and what the future holds. Given her young age – just 24 – it was remarkable to hear her speak with such clarity and self-confidence. It reinforced my view that she will be a very bright star in Irish whiskey.
Then it was the Tánaiste’s turn. Deputy Burton spoke about how her ancestors were coopers, having grown up near Bow Street distillery, and also about how important it is to have gender balance in the workplace – be it at the cabinet table, or in the distilling world. Then it was over to the stills to switch them on, one by one, at which point they lit up in sequence.
Here is some low-grade audio of part of Karen Cotter and Joan Burton’s speeches:
Whilst there I chatted to local politicians Deputy Sandra McLellan of SF, David Stanton of FG and fellow journalist Tomás Clancy of the SBP. It was great to finally meet Tomás, as we both used to be part of the same media group, and also because he is a great ambassador for whiskey. I had seen him speak at Ballymaloe LitFest with Dave Broom and he was great, really knowledgeable without beating you over the head with it. Top guy, and the SBP is a great paper.
I also chatted to Richard Forsyth of the legendary pot still makers Forsyths – the Rolls Royce of post still makers. I had met him at the Spirit Of Speyside gala in May so it was nice to meet him on my home turf. Speyside is incredible – if you ever get a chance to visit there during the whisky festival, do so. You won’t regret it. The festival is one of the rare occasions when you can get a tour of the massive plant in Rothes. As a Scottish engineering firm their main business is oil and gas – which occupies about 300 of their staff, while the distilling operation has 60 or so working in it. There is an impressive drone flyover of the facility to give you an idea of what they do.
During the Spirit of Speyside festival the town also hosts a tattie bogle contest – local businesses create scarecrows and hang them off buildings or in windows. It is goddam terrifying, like something from Tales Of The Unexpected or The League Of Gentlemen.
Also there was Bernard Walsh, head of the IWA and one of the ‘real deal’ distillers in Ireland at the moment. He is the man behind Writer’s Tears, to my mind one of the stand-out Irish whiskeys, not just for its fresh aesthetic and great name, but just because it is a great drink. Bernard’s new pot stills arrived from Rothes last week, so it’s an exciting time for him, the culmination of many years of hard work.
Then it was off to the buses to be ferried down to Warehouse 11, a functioning storage facility that they had transformed into an incredible venue for the evening. About 350 guests filed in, greeted with Jameson whiskey sours, and then on a massive screen we were shown DJ Kormac talking about a commission he was given to create a track from the sounds of the distillery. He talked about his methods as they cut in footage from barley fields, and then he and singer Vivienne Long took to the stage to unveil their track. No wonder he is so skinny with all the frenetic work he does behind his electronics.
Then the screen lifted and we were in the venue proper, with names and tables assigned on a screen. Somehow I managed to locate mine, right up the front near the stage, perfect if i got carried away and wanted to start a moshpit or possibly stage dive onto some marketing people. The meal itself was spectacular, these massive outside events mean you need to set up mobile kitchens in the middle of nowhere and bus in an army of wait staff and chefs. Sometimes this can result in sub standard food, but not in this case; every part of the meal was incredible, really interesting food, beautiful, inspired presentation, and wait staff who were incredibly patient with my increasingly terrible banter: ‘Still or sparkling water sir?’ ‘Sparkling – LIKE MESELF’. I wonder how many times that poor person had to hear that jape in a single night. I was sat next to a member of the Irish Whiskey Association, which much like its Scottish counterpart is mainly involved in protection of intellectual copyright and maintaining the integrity of the Irish Whiskey brand. They make sure that you don’t end up with some low grade hooch from outside the country being passed off as ‘ye olde Oirish whiskey’ as it will devalue the entire category.
Also sat next to me was the Jameson Ambassador to Tokyo, a 23 year old Arts graduate from Wicklow, who possessed the rare (Irish) skill of being able to speak fluent Japanese. He spoke about his work, his projected aims and the brand’s target demographics. It was an amazing insight into a job that seems like it might be akin to being Duffman from The Simpsons, but is actually a lot more sophisticated, nuanced and involves a lot less booze than you would think. He has his work cut out for him – in a fast-paced and somewhat alien cultural landscape (one with a fantastic indigenous whisky scene), trying to attach yourself to the zeitgeist will be akin to catching a bullet between your teeth. But it will still be some incredible adventure for a young man.
Throughout the event there was incredible live music on stage – Lisa Hannigan, an orchestra playing popular classics (and grunge), and a harpist who would give Tony Iommi a run for his money.
After dinner we were treated to three new whiskeys from the distillery, each curated by a master – Master Cooper Ger Buckley’s the Cooper’s Croze, Master Distiller Brian Nation’s Distiller’s Safe and Master Blender Billy Leighton’s Blender’s Dog, three exclusive blends named after the respective tools of the masters’ trades.
We were asked to sample them, discuss and compare, which we duly did. Then the massive screens flared into life, and a short film about the trio began, showing them getting ready in their various domains, which then cut to a live feed of them walking into through the massive doors of Warehouse 11, all conducted to the strains of Arcade Fire. We toasted them, had a dram, and Hermitage Green took the stage, playing into the night.
CEO of Pernod Ricard, Alex Ricard, also spoke at the event. Last year he talked about the definition of craft and what it means. It has become increasingly obvious that craft, artisan and small batch are products of marketing teams and have lost much of their meaning. However, the consumer is getting canny – Templeton Rye was hit with a massive class action lawsuit over claims their whiskey was small batch, when actually it was sourced from a large-scale production facility. So when Midleton created a micro-distillery, they made sure to avoid the computer terminal controls you see in larger facilities, and instead opted for manual controls. The same goes for Ballindalloch in Speyside – they deliberately went for full manual controls to keep a down-home feel to their single estate distillery.
Alex Ricard posed the question – ‘what is craft?’ Is it the centuries that Irish people have been making whiskey, is it the incredibly history of the drink on this island, and at what point does a facility stop being ‘craft’? Is it a question of size and scale, is it to do with technology? Is there less craft in a large plant than in a garage-based operation? How is that so? Can a multi-national own a craft distillery – is it a question of economics? Most modern food and drink operations operate like pharma plants – is there a chilling effect in this system? Would you enjoy your drink more if you thought some chap made it in his shed? Or is it simply a question of aura, of exclusivity, of rareness? As a species we tend to hate the modern age, and yearn for some pre-industrial idyll that never existed; a simpler time when the noble farmer toiled the land before going home to read Chaucer by candlelight and die of natural causes at 40. We are bemused by the trainspotters and their passion for engineering – but not by people who go to art galleries. Modern engineering is a beautiful thing – be it the micro distillery or the bigger sibling that produces much of the world supply of Irish whiskey.
Mr Ricard also spoke about how everyone present on the night had a personal connection to Jameson – they have their pet names for it, their favourite way to drink it, their stories about how they started getting into whiskey. The jaded cynic in me might raise my eyes, but in a way he was right. Like Jameson, I am from Dublin originally, but spent the last 40 years in east Cork. My mother was a 19 year old from Sherriff Street in the north inner city, who grew up close to the old premises of Haig And Haig, and a few doors down from St Laurence O’Toole Church, supposedly built over old whiskey stores, which has led to the crypts still carrying a lingering hint of the angel’s share. She put me up for adoption, and after six weeks I was brought home by my mum and dad. After a brief stint in Kerry, we moved to Midleton, where my dad worked in the bank that lies just downriver from the distillery.
I grew up in a house overlooking the distillery, halfway between there and the new maturation sites in Dungourney. As a kid I swam and fished in the same river that they make all those incredible whiskeys from, and later I went to school just over the wall from the distillery in Midleton College. If you ever visit the Garden Stillhouse, see if you can find the sinkhole nearby, which leads to the underground stream from which the distillery takes some of its water. The stream travels under the wall and into the school grounds, and over the years pupils used to dare each other to travel through the pitch black cave network and up into the distillery – despite the fact that for some of the 50 yards or so you would be chest-deep in ice-cold water. My parents sent me to this expensive, private school – and they worked hard to pay for it. My dad loved whiskey – the first article I wrote for the Irish Examiner was about The Housewarming, but also about my dad, and in it I told this story: When I was about 10, my mother had a massive brain haemorrhage. She was given 24 hours to live. My dad went to the hospital chapel and made a deal with God – he would give up his beloved whiskey if mum pulled through. She duly did, and he hasn’t touched a drop since. She passed away nine years ago now, but he still won’t drink it as he says ‘a deal is a deal’.
It sounds like bunkum, but I like this story because it tells you the kind of guy my dad is. Part of my love of whiskey comes from him, and from suddenly having that strange epiphany when you realise that your dad is a great guy. He grew up in an Ireland that has thankfully almost completely disappeared – his dad used to come home, eat dinner, then go to the pub. His father once told him about the hilarity among his friends when they saw a friend of their’s pushing a buggy. Fathers back then earned the money and that was about it. The kids were women’s work. But my dad was always there for me, as I crashed headlong through life. Despite the fact that I often made terrible choices, he supported me no matter what. Whiskey to me is a symbol of all that is great about him – of being a good father, a good husband, a good human being. It represents the slow joy of growing old, of maturity. It’s about the simple pleasure of a mind-unclenching, blood-warming drink whilst surrounded by your family as they bicker about X Factor or try to figure out what the hell was going on in Age Of Ultron. It’s a celebration of making peace with this world. I have enjoyed constant privilege – from the luck of being a journalist to the childhood I had. I went down Sherriff Street for the first time this summer to see the old family home, to see where at least part of me is from. The area is a ghetto, fenced in by the ugly opulence of the IFSC on one side and, on the other, a canal, which once brought so much wealth and industry to the area, now filled with rubbish. While we were down there a child shot at the car with a BB gun. We didn’t stick around for long. It was a sobering reminder of how lucky I am, in all aspects of my life. I have tasted amazing whiskeys, seen amazing things and met amazing people over the last few years, and the event in Midleton last month was a reminder of all my good fortune – of growing up in the home of Irish whiskey, in a house filled with love and unopened bottles of Jameson, because, as my dad says, a deal is a deal.